FABLES AND FABRICATIONS by Jan Edwards
While being aware of Jan Edward’s considerable skills as an editor and co-publisher of Alchemy Press, I had not
previously read much of her own writing. FABLES AND FABRICATIONS is a collection of fourteen short stories
interspersed with poems. All of the stories have been previously published elsewhere although the haiku’s (three line
poems with a 5-7-5 syllable structure) are all original.
One of the problems I often have with single author collections is that the stories often become very similar. That is most definitely not the case here. While most of the stories could be classed as fantasy (with a couple of exceptions) the stories are pleasingly varied in subject and style, ranging from light humorous pieces through to some dark and emotionally affecting tales. It is no easy task to write well over such a wide range, and is a good reflection of the author’s significant abilities and imagination. I also like the prose style which makes very effective use of similies and metaphors so that they are evocative without being cliched. Whilst every story is not equally enjoyable, I feel this is more a question of my individual taste than anything inherent to the crafting and quality of the story.
One of my favourites is the first story, “Drawing down the Moon” which looks at the high price which must be paid for communicating with the dead. I really liked the shift from the mundane setting of a seedy café to the high drama later in the story. It also amply demonstrates the author’s ability to write credible female (and male) protagonists. Other favourites include; “Midnight Twilight” about a journalist searching for a mysterious creature in the remote Arctic, which again is very atmospheric; “The Abused and Him” which is not fantasy but paints a realistic and unsettling picture of the after-effects of abuse on a victim; and “Princess Born” which is a very funny re-writing of the Princess and the Pea fairy story. The author is clearly familiar with a lot of folklore, both British and European and plays with these themes very effectively in many of the stories, which appealed to me personally.
Regarding the poetry, I am always hesitant commenting but I did enjoy the Haiku in particular as one can see the real skill in capturing an impression or emotion in very few words.
This is a collection of thoughtfully written, wide ranging stories which I thoroughly recommend with the only caveat being that it is not for those who want science fiction stories.
LEINSTER GARDENS AND OTHER SUBTLETIES by Jan Edwards
The problem with reading a book of ghost stories is that you are always on the look-out for the ghost. It is harder to
surprise the reader but a skilled writer can do it especially if they make use of the full use of range of ghosts that
appear in literature. Many Victorian writers liked the idea of the vengeful ghost, the innocent who suffers at the hands
of the wicked and wants justice. Other ghosts don’t realise they are dead and don’t know that they have to move on,
while others are somehow trapped. Experiences that might be interpreted as ghosts may merely be a replay of events
with no spirit involved or a lost spirit from another dimension may not understand the havoc they are causing. There
are probably as many interpretations of the phenomena labelled ghosts as there are apparitions recorded. The
challenge is to make the supernatural unexpected rather than unexplained.
In this volume of fourteen ghost stories, Jan Edwards explores the nature of the ghostly event and finds ways of reinterpreting it. Many of these stories have their roots in folklore and urban myth; many reportings of ghostly sightings have already entered into the mythology of the haunted place. The title story, “Concerning The Events In Leinster Gardens” has the authenticity of the 1930s in both language and attitudes. It also draws on the scams that were able to catch out the unwary. Archie buys a ticket to a masked ball in good faith. From the moment of his arrival in Leinster Gardens, the reader is aware that nothing is quite what it seems. Gullible Archie is not so fortunate. The challenge is to spot all the tropes that Edwards is playing with.
Whereas, the house itself in Leinster Gardens can be regarded as the ghost, “The Waiting” would be regarded as more traditional with a house being haunted. It is the approach that makes it different, cutting between past and present.
A good way of solving the ‘which is the ghost’ problem is a bit of misdirection. Titles well-chosen can provide it as in “Nanna Barrows” a story narrated by a young girl, now an invalid after having recovered from diphtheria.
“April Love” gives us a choice of possible ghosts. Some, often weak stories, don’t reveal that the narrator is a ghost until the very end, leaving the reader feeling cheated. This doesn’t happen here as the narrative is third person but seen from the points of view of April and her two suitors. It is very carefully plotted to keep the reader guessing.
By default, ghost stories have an element of the past within them. Often it is a contemporary figure interacting with a spectre that has their origin in history. In most of Edwards’ stories, the setting for the events is also historical. “The Ballad Of Lucy Lightfoot” is an exception because it crosses boundaries. Lucy has returned to the place of her birth on the Isle of Wight to finish what started nearly two hundred years previously. The story manages to combine paganism, folklore, time travel and immortality yet still contains ghosts – though this time they are much harder to spot. Because of this, and its longer length it is my favourite in this collection.
“Orbyting” is very different and a complete contrast to the stories on either side of it. It has a very modern high tech, SF feel to it. Kat is part of a team of ghost hunters. When she returns to the office to retrieve forgotten keys she gets locked in. On screen, she is hunting a ghost but is it also hunting her?
Two stories here are very much of the traditional type. In fact, the idea of “R For Roberta” has been used before. It is an elderly man at the end of his life who is remembering the time in the war when the plane he should have been on didn’t return from its war-time mission. While in “Wade’s Run” two lost women are taken to a hostel after an accident by a helpful motorist, after he runs them down. Like “R For Roberta”, “Redhill Residential” has its roots in WWII when many airmen failed to return. Again it is the past impinging on the present, but this is a much more unusual and subtle story. “Valkenswaard” is another war-time ghost story but where death is violent and loss is both dreaded and expected the frequency of ghostly events is intensified. In this story, though, the apparition is closer to the one who experiences it. It could be regarded as a spirit who doesn’t yet know that the body is dead, or a spirit determined to keep a promise no matter what.
Most ghosts are perceived to have the same appearance as when they died. Some, who believe in a happy afterlife, imagine their loved ones at the peak of their Earthly fitness, so when the lover dies young, the partner living to ripe old age will be rejuvenated when they meet again. There are obvious flaws on this arrangement but that is no reason to think that a spirit is identical to the body they left with all the traumas of injury or sickness. In “The Clinic” this is something Sarah gets to consider when her younger sister dies. Young men are always ready to laugh at the tall tales of their elders. Whether they are ready to believe them or not doesn’t stop them daring each other, especially after a few beers, which is why in “The Eve Watch” the two youths celebrating their last night of freedom before being called up, are lurking in the churchyard. According to Jem’s Granfer, watching there for three consecutive years will grant a vision of those about to die. Here, we have an example of a predictive ghost, a messenger from the spirit world where the future is known.
The final two stories both deal with transformations, but in very different ways. In “Otterburn” there is a question as to whether there is a ghost here, a transformation or even a death. There is certainly a disappearance. The skill of the writing allows the reader to make their own decisions as to what has taken place on the river bank. With “The Black Hound Of Newgate”, there is no doubt that sorcery has taken place. In folklore there are many tales of ghostly black dogs roaming the countryside, often portending bad luck for whoever sees it. This one haunts Newgate Gaol. It is often postulated that we all have an animal inside us and that out human form is merely a veneer. The question this story asks is whether both parts of a soul die at the same time, or can one form become a ghost leaving the alter ego having a material presence. After a riot in the gaol, one man may have the chance to find out.
This book can be read simply as a collection of ghost stories, but on another level it exploring the variety of ghostly phenomena and asking the reader to wonder why we are so fascinated by them. Many of these stories are set in the past and Jan Edwards is very good at evoking an earlier era in a minimum of words. It is perhaps a volume to be dipped in to rather than reading straight through.
BORDERLINE (Hive Mind 4) by Janet Edwards
I don’t know about anyone else, but in these strange times, I have found that I don’t want to be reading stories with too
much gloom and doom and this story definitely fits that bill. Whilst there is plenty of conflict and action to keep the
reader interested, I also found it refreshing to have characters that are fundamentally decent and functioning members
of their society. That should not be taken as meaning they are boring or bland – far from it – they still have plenty of
issues and flaws to deal with.
Unlike many SF series, which tend to be written as trilogies, BORDERLINE is the fourth book in Janet Edward’s Hive Mind series and it is still going strong. The Hive Mind series are YA/crossover SF set in a future where most people live in self-contained arcologies, where everyone is assessed at 18 and assigned to jobs which most effectively match their skills and personalities. The main character, Amber however is the rare exception. On assessment, she has been discovered to be a rare telepath, vital to helping the hive detect and prevent crime. Whatever her predilections and talents, she must adapt to the secrecy and challenges of the demanding role of Telepath with little guidance.
Each story in this series focuses on a particular case that Amber and her support team must solve, whilst there are also continuing threads which explore the wider issues and consequences of being a Telepath and gradually reveal more about the nature of the Hives. In this book, Amber and her team must find the leader of a teenage live role-playing game (LARP) whose “challenges” are ramping up to a dangerous level resulting in serious injuries to the players. This is complicated by interference and disruption from one of the other few Telepaths (for reasons which become clearer as the narrative progresses). As if that wasn’t enough, she is also struggling with preserving the secrecy of her abilities from her family, which is made doubly difficult when her brother is detained during the current investigation.
As usual the story has excellent pace and keeps the reader reading avidly for the next development. Care as always is taken in plotting so that there is a logical and credible progression of events and “reveals”. The worldbuilding is also excellent – the reader builds up a good picture of the society without having to cope with info-dumps. Also, although written from Amber’s viewpoint, she is no “Mary Sue” perfect character but as with any young woman she has her doubts and makes mistakes. The importance of the team to her job is something I also enjoyed, a bit like Star Trek Next Generation where it’s not all about one person. Another positive thing I like is that the author shows a society where diverse characters (including people with different physical abilities, sexual orientation and non-neurotypical) are functional members of society and there is no stigma or special attention given to this. In a nutshell, I heartily recommend this book to SF readers of any age.
DEFENDER (Hive Mind 2) by Janet Edwards
I am not a fan of the term YA as I feel it creates an artificial separation and removes many excellent novels from the
attention of “adult” readers. Indeed, many fondly remembered SF books from earlier years such as Andre Norton or
much Robert Heinlein, would now probably be classified as YA. Janet’s novels to me have that same appeal to a very
wide readership – indeed my son was fighting me to read this book first when he saw I had it which is not something
he does with most of my reading material (Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch being the other notable exceptions).
In the first book, TELEPATH we saw Amber as she turns eighteen and enters the Lottery, the psychological testing that
determines the future role and rank of every citizen based on their aptitudes and society’s needs. However, Amber is
found to be a very rare and valuable telepath. Telepath’s are vital in detecting criminals and preventing crimes in the
vast closed community of the Hive in which she lives. So valuable is this ability that unlike other citizens she will not
be imprinted with relevant information (and attitudes) and she must be protected and her abilities kept secret from all
but a handful of people. In the first book we saw Amber getting to know her team who both protect her and help her
hunt. She had to come to terms with incidents from her childhood and adapt to her new circumstances. In this second
book, set only a few months later, Amber is now working effectively with her team in identifying potential criminals and
preventing incidents. However, finding a dead body of someone they knew without Amber having detected any
warning signs of a crime precipitates a crisis. Someone with close knowledge of telepaths and how their teams work is
clearly involved. As they try to uncover the traitor and their plans for massive destruction and disruption, Amber must
also struggle within her mind as opening her thoughts to others brings its own threats to her sanity and identity.
As with other books by this author, DEFENDER combines well a strong plot and narrative with interesting and fallible
characters. The story is well paced and the reader wants to keep reading to see what happens next. Amber in
particular is extremely likeable and shows development and growth as she deals with both professional and personal
crises. As well as the plot strands of the traitor and Amber’s psychological health, there is clearly a larger arc plot
developing around Hive Societies and the complexities of being a telepath as Amber starts to learn and importantly
question her new circumstances. YA or crossover it may be but there is a lot of story and depth in these books while still
appealing to that market. The author is not afraid to move to different characters and settings than her previous series
and the world of the Hives is interesting and very different from that of the Earth Girl series. The style and SF settings
remind me very much of Anne McCaffrey’s non-Pern series (eg The Talent, Crystal Singer and The Ship Who …
series) and anyone who enjoyed those will find much to like here. Another thoroughly enjoyable SF novel that will
appeal to many.
EARTH FLIGHT by Janet Edwards
This is the third and final volume in the Earth Girl trilogy. For those of you unfamiliar with the previous books (EARTH
GIRL and EARTH STAR) the series is set on a future Earth, where most of humanity has scattered to many stars via the
portals which provide instant transport. The Earth’s economy now revolves around three main areas, History, Hospitals
and the Handicapped (the triple H). The Handicapped are an unfortunate minority who are unable to exist away from
Earth due to a fault in their immune systems. Babies born away from Earth with the problem are immediately
“portalled” back to Earth and many parents abandon them to the impersonal foster centres. These “Handicapped” are
often viewed as something shameful and there is a lot of prejudice against them.
In the first book, EARTH STAR we are introduced to Jarra, a teenage girl. Abandoned on Earth as a baby she has grown up hearing all the insults about the Handicapped being stupid, ugly throwbacks and is angry and determined to prove she is as good as any “norm”. She enrols on a University History course but pretends to all the offworld students that she is one of them. Towards the end of the novel, Jarra and her classmates rescue crashed military personnel from an archaeological dig site and in recognition she is given the military Artemis medal and becomes a positive role model for the Handicapped.
In the second book, EARTH STAR an alien Sphere approaches Earth and the Military conscript Jarra and her boyfriend into the Alien Contact team, partially for her history knowledge but also due to her celebrity status.
In this third book the plot concentrates on two main strands. Firstly Jarra’s formal adoption by her birth clan and the active prejudice this causes and secondly the quest to translate the alien data and find their home planet. Factions who fear alien contact join forces with those who wish to stop her adoption and Jarra’s life is endangered. Due to events in the previous book only Jarra can unlock access to the alien homeworld and the vital knowledge it contains. However due to her disability Jarra faces a life threatening decision.
I like these books immensely. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the plotting. Even when the reader is tempted to start thinking that an event is improbable, this has been recognised and there is a plausible explanation. In this book in particular I liked that Jarra’s character shows growth and maturity and starts to recognise her own prejudices and the chip on her shoulder. The themes of prejudice and difference are well managed and will clearly resonate with many teenagers. I also find it extremely refreshing to read young adult SF which is not a complete dystopia. These books remind me of Anne McCaffrey (especially her non-Pern books) in that they appeal to readers across a wide age range.
EARTH GIRL by Janet Edwards
This is not just a debut novel from a talented new writer but Janet is also one of our own – a Brum Group member.
EARTH GIRL is the first of a trilogy narrated by Jarra Reeath, an eighteen-year-old brought up on Earth. This is not her choice and she is resentful of the circumstances that have forced this circumstance on her. Most of the population of Earth migrated to other planets once the ‘portal system had been developed and the planets’ okayed for colonisation by the Military. Unfortunately, a few children are born allergic to all other planets and have to be shipped to Earth almost instantly. These children are raised to know that they can never leave the planet, and most are rejected by their parents.
Jarra is one of these. To compound matters the ‘exos’ (those who live on other planets) tend to regard Earth children as inferior throwbacks. They are the bottom of society’s heap and the butt of racist taunts.
Jarra is a rebel. Although she knows she can never leave, she is determined to prove that she and her friends are as good as anyone else. As history is her passion (her friends are always telling her to shut up about it) she enrols in the University of Asgard as an archaeological student. This suits her fine as the Foundation course takes place entirely on Earth at various digs. She has already visited many of them and knows her way around, especially New York where they are based for the first section of the course. Her problem is that she doesn’t want the other students to know she is an Earth Girl so she manufactures a history for herself, claiming that she is Military born. As the Military move from place to place she doesn’t need to claim a planet of origin, and can pretend that the skills she has already acquired are the result of a Military upbringing.
Jarra begins her course with as many prejudices regarding her fellow students as they have about her kind. If anything, these come across as stereotypes.
Planets have been settled in sectors as the portal system has expanded. The oldest colonised, Alphas, are populated by the rich and the spoiled (or so Jarra thinks).
Beta planets allow a very louche lifestyle – skimpy clothes, uninhibited sexual mores while Gammas are up-tight puritans. Gradually, though, Jarra begins to understand that the stereotypes are just that and her fellow students are as fallible as she is, their attitudes relating to their up-bringing.
Jarra herself is a very likable teen who bounces onto the page and never stays still. She begins as a bit of a super woman, accomplishing tasks easily that her fellows have yet to learn. She has a lot of growing up to do throughout the course of the novel and there are surprises waiting for her.
The setting and situations are well thought out and the image of the crumbling ruins of New York five hundred years in the future is a powerful one. Despite the occasional plot convenience, this is a light, enjoyable romp but with deeper issues being considered in the undertow. An excellent start to what, hopefully, will be a productive writing career.
EARTH STAR by Janet Edwards
BSFG Member and regular attendee Janet Edwards is the author of the EARTH GIRL trilogy, science fiction for adult
and young adult readers, set in a distant future where humanity portals between hundreds of colony worlds . . . Except
for the unfortunate few whose immune system can’t handle living anywhere else but Earth.
In the first book, EARTH GIRL, Jarra was sent to Earth at birth to save her life and abandoned by her parents. She can’t travel to other worlds, but she can watch their vids, and she knows all the jokes they make. She’s an “ape,” a “throwback,” but this is one ape girl who won’t give in.
Being an 'ape' Jarra is subject to continual discrimination despite being awarded the Artemis medal for her heroic actions in the first novel. The majority of norms have left earth to live on other colonized planets expanding into the universe. Jarra is isolated, trapped on planet Earth and unable to pursue the military career she so wants.
Edwards captures the essence of 18-year olds even creating her own future teen lingo/jargon, which resonates. The new academic term starts and Jarra's team are at Eden to begin an archaeological dig. Unable to leave the planet due to her immunity deficiency Jarra accepts that she can never enter the military. At least she does until she and her 'twoing' partner Fian are conscripted in an emergency to the military to help with what may be evidence of first contact. They are working for the Alien Contact Programme, which has been activated. Of course the worry sets in straight away, because Jarra will die if she goes offworld.
Edwards' SF elements are strong and speak of her knowledge of the genre, with portals between sectors and planets for transport, hover bags and food dispensers, which are common place and feel real. This novel is bursting with energy and it is refreshing to see a number of powerful, strong female characters particularly in the military. And Jarra is a great female representative too; although being an 'ape' she is the daughter of heroes and a Military Honour Child. A thoroughly enjoyable YA book that will appeal to adults too.
HURRICANE (Hive Mind 3) by Janet EdwardsOf the various books Janet Edwards has written, I think the Hive Mind series are my favourites. For those who aren’t aware of them, they are set in a future where most people now live in giant self-contained cities or “hives”. At the age of 18, everyone is assessed and assigned to a job which most precisely matches their abilities and inclinations. To enable them to quickly become productive, their minds are imprinted with the necessary knowledge. The protagonist, Amber is one of the rare exceptions. She is a newly-identified telepath and vital to the stability of the hive society. Unlike others she is not imprinted as there is a risk it might interfere with her telepathic abilities. One of only five telepaths in the hive, she uses her abilities to identify and isolate criminals before they can commit crimes. In the previous books, Amber has been growing into her role and learning to deal with the problems of being a telepath. She is also slowly starting to discover and question things about the organisation and rules of the Hive city. In HURRICANE, Amber and her team move outside the city to investigate a series of crimes in the sea farm unit. This is an additional challenge as the small sea-farm community are more independently minded than the contented city dwellers she is used to scanning. Assessment and imprinting at 18 is not compulsory there, and any minor “policing” needed is normally handled by their own security without the need to involve telepaths. With a resentful population, the threat of an imminent hurricane and the escalating violence of the criminal, she faces probably her most daunting task yet. I think it was Isaac Asimov who famously scorned those doubters who said that you can’t write a good Science Fiction mystery. It may be more difficult but can be done as long as the author is “fair” with the reader (as is the case with any conventional mystery). In HURRICANE, Janet Edwards has written a very satisfying who-dunnit with plenty to keep the reader guessing. Although Amber has the ability to read minds, the author has clearly and cleverly included credible reasons and restrictions why identifying the “villain” takes time and effort. Another strength is that the characters in the book continue to be believable and relatable. Despite her abilities, Amber is not some “superwoman” and her doubts and insecurities make her more interesting to the reader and also what one would expect from an 18- year old girl having to suddenly cope with an unanticipated and extremely high-pressure role. As well as the main plot the author adds more depth to the story as she continues to explore and develop the arc plot about the Hive Societies and the role and abilities of telepaths. This is an eminently readable SF story that will appeal to a wide age range beyond just YA. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next instalment.
SCAVENGER ALLIANCE (Exodus 1) by Janet Edwards
SCAVENGER ALLIANCE is the first in a new SF series by Janet Edwards. It is set in the same universe as her previous
Earth Girl series but some four hundred years earlier so it is not necessary to have read Earth Girl to enjoy this story.
This novel looks at the early years after the establishment of interstellar portal technology. Most of Earth’s population
has left in a massive, rushed exodus to new unpolluted colony worlds. With so few people left on Earth, infrastructure
and technology have collapsed. The remaining people have segregated into “respectable citizens” who have left the
cities and founded settlements in the countryside, and the “undesirables” that neither the settlements or the extrasolar
colonies will accept.
Blaze is a teenage girl in one such band. It is formed from an uneasy alliance between the remnants of an Earth Resistance group (who campaigned against the unplanned and hasty emigration of Earth) and four other divisions, named after their geographical origins. This group scavenge and hunt for a living amongst the ruins of New York. They are led by Blaze’s putative father, Donnell. However, his position (and the group’s in general) is weakened after disease and a hard winter have left the group low on resources. When three stranded off-worlders appear asking for shelter, Donnell’s decision to help them further undermines his status.
Blaze is assigned to supervise the youngest off-worlder, Tad; both to protect him and to try and uncover his secrets. Meanwhile Cage, a devious, unscrupulous bully from one of the other divisions sees marriage to Blaze as his path to overall control of the group. As the internal and external threats escalate, it is only Blaze and Tad’s complementary skills and knowledge that will be vital to the group and their own survival.
As with previous work by the author, this is well plotted and thoroughly enjoyable SF. Yet again, a major strength of Janet Edward’s work is her worldbuilding. Given the promise of long distance portal travel, the resultant cascade of consequences is extremely plausible and convincing. Also well done is the establishment of the societal structure of the groups and the internal politics within the storytelling so one absorbs this easily without any noticeable chunks of info-dumping that less skilled authors might have resorted to.
One thing which I always appreciate is that her characters are credible and their actions are consistent with their personality. Blaze, as a heroine is different from Jarra (the heroine in Earth Girl). The reader can see the influences of her childhood on her skills and confidence. I particularly like that she is not a “kick-ass” heroine, as in too many YA novels. Instead she is competent without being unrealistically strong. She makes mistakes but learns from her experiences and slowly gains confidence in her own abilities and place in the group.
This is a book which keeps the reader interested and involved in the story. It is well paced with a good mixture of action, menace and character development and one which I really enjoyed reading.
SCAVENGER BLOOD (Scavenger Exodus 2) by Janet Edwards
It’s always interesting to me as a reader to see how an author handles the second book in a series. It could be
considered that a lot of the hard work of establishing your main characters and the world they live in has been done,
but to me that makes it almost harder as you now have more “room” to focus on the characters’ development and you
also have to continue on a story which (hopefully) came to a successful resolution in the first book. In my opinion Janet
Edwards does an excellent job in this book of addressing both these issues.
The Scavenger Exodus series is set some four hundred years earlier than the events in the author’s Earth Girl series. In the first book, SCAVENGER ALLIANCE (reviewed in BSFG Newsletter #553) most of the Earth’s population have left, using interstellar portals to move to new extrasolar colonies. As the population numbers crashed, the infrastructure broke down and the few remaining people live a hunter/gatherer existence amongst the ruined cities. When a party of stranded off-worlders seeks shelter with one of these groups they become the catalyst for serious divisions and conflict. Blaze, the daughter of the leader and Tad, one of the off-worlders work together to defeat the manipulative and dangerous Cage. At the end of the first book Cage is defeated but escapes to hide somewhere in the city.
The second book takes place only a short time after. Blaze is now a deputy leader of the Resistance section of the group, but there are still tensions amongst the remaining factions of the group. As they try to prepare for an exodus from the city to escape an imminent firestorm (caused by a dangerous build-up of unused power in the city’s technology), Cage’s presence is still felt. As well as an actual attack on the group itself, he also continues to manipulate the politics via the overt and covert activities of his allies remaining in the group. As Blaze, Tad and her friends try to uncover and counter Cage’s manoeuvrings, the plot builds to an exciting climax with a nice mixture of thrilling action scenes and political confrontations.
Blaze as the main protagonist is still an excellent and sympathetic heroine. From the start of the series, the reader sees her confidence in her intelligence and abilities grow. She can’t do everything, she needs the help of others and she still makes mistakes and doubts herself, all of which make her an interesting and believable character.
As I’ve come to expect with this author, the plot is well-paced and keeps the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. It’s also well-structured so that there are surprises and twists in there so it’s not predictable, and although you don’t always spot what is going to happen, it makes sense within the setting of the story. All in all, another excellent YA SF book which comes to a satisfactory conclusion whilst still leaving plenty of scope for the continuation of the adventures of the characters into subsequent volumes.
TELEPATH (Hive Mind 1) by Janet Edwards
There is now a new kind of author – the hybrid. These are writers who have been published by mainstream publishers
but have later decided, for various reasons, to self-publish. Storm Constantine was one of the first, wanting to get her
earlier books back into print before going on to develop the independent publishing house of Immanion Press. Brum
Group member, Janet Edwards has joined this select band. After the success of her Earth Girl trilogy, she had a
following wanting to know where they could get hold of the next book. Publishing schedules of the major publishers
tend to put out only one book per author per year. Janet didn’t want her fans to wait that long, especially as she is a
prolific writer, so decided to produce the next books herself. While some authors need the input of various editors and
agents to make sure a high quality is maintained, it is pleasing to discover that Janet doesn’t. TELEPATH has the
same excellent production qualities as the Earth Girl trilogy.
Janet writes very effectively for Young Adults, properly embracing the sub-genre and placing her characters in peril, keeping the action going throughout. TELEPATH has a number of parallels with the Earth Girl trilogy. Both are set in far future societies and each has an eighteen-year old female protagonist who finds herself in a situation where she is an outsider having to prove her worth. In TELEPATH, the human population of Earth is gathered into huge, largely underground, complexes known as Hives. Each of these is as self-contained as a country. The Hives trade with each other and may be suspicious of each other’s motives. As in EARTH GIRL, much of the teen age years of the young people are spent learning independence and living in areas that largely exclude adults.
Amber, the protagonist of TELEPATH, and Jarra, the protagonist of EARTH GIRL, each begin the narrative reaching a point where their lives will change for ever. For Jarra, it is choosing the university course that will shape her adult career. For Amber, it is the series of tests that make up Lottery in the year she is eighteen. From the results of these she will be assigned a job for life, one that she is suited for and will enjoy, and will have the information she needs to carry it out imprinted on her brain. She will be very unlikely to ever meet her teenage companions again. Amber, though, turns out to have a very rare quality. She is a true telepath. As such, and only one of five in her Hive, she must be protected at all costs as she is the one who effectively will keep order. She will be able to find and track criminals so that they can be apprehended and dealt with by the Enforcers.
Amber discovers that she has a vast area, including a park, that is part of her quarters but that she has to share it with a team of Enforcers that act as her bodyguards, as well as medics, tacticians, cooks, cleaners. And she has to learn to control her new-found abilities. She has to be able to pick out from amongst the myriads, the criminal mind and direct her team to find them. She has to be able to shut out the unwanted thoughts of the others around her.
From her Lottery testing, Amber’s elite enforcers have been selected to conform to the profile she would be attracted to. Since she won’t be allowed to freely socialise, any partners would have to be found amongst those in her coterie and a telepath’s desires are paramount in keeping her happy. Thus, amongst the group is Forge, the friend from her teenage years that she was obsessed with, though he was never a boyfriend. Now she finds herself more attracted to Lucas, her tactical team leader because his mind fizzes with energy. When they attend a situation when a three-year old goes missing, incidents from her childhood begin to make more sense and an unexpected threat is exposed.
In this novel, Amber has to cope not only with the dramatic change in status that the Lottery’s rite of passage throws at her and the awakening of her own physical needs, but an imminent danger to her and her Hive.
Janet has done a good job juggling the need to write something different from her first trilogy while also keeping the elements that have attracted her fan base. Anyone who enjoyed the Earth Girl trilogy will love this. Like Jarra, Amber dances across the page with all the hopes and neuroses of any eighteen-year old. A good job well done.
RUIN’S WAKE by Patrick Edwards
This is the debut novel by Patrick Edwards. It’s set in a militaristic, totalitarian regime, where the state controls most
things. The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of three protagonists; Cale; an old soldier living at the edge
of civilisation; Kelbee, a young woman sold into an arranged, abusive marriage to a high-ranking military officer; and
Professor Sulara, Song, a female scientist, marginalised and side-lined in the patriarchal society, who has discovered
a strange relic from the past. These three people, for various personal reasons, converge on the site of the mysterious
ancient artefact, which has the potential to have a profound effect on the future of the repressive regime.
In writing about a dystopia, there is always a danger in making it too unpleasant. The book has a pronounced “grimdark” feel and is quite graphic in some sections. There is an audience for this type of book but it’s not to my taste, so I am perhaps the wrong reader here. While the society is clearly written as misogynistic and male-dominated, I personally found the violence that Kelbee in particular endures repugnant. It also felt to me that the author was more comfortable and adept at writing male characters and I found the two female characters less convincing and almost stereotypical at times. While each character does have something to contribute to the final conflict, I felt that at times the pace in getting them there was a little slow. In particular, Cale’s journey felt overlong for the amount of character development that he underwent and would have benefitted from being shorter. One of the problems I have with a lack of pace in a story is that I start to pay more attention to little niggles that drop me out of the flow of the story. In particular, Dr Song’s sections are written in a different font, which is very distracting and I am not sure why it is necessary. As an SF story, I also felt that the story would have benefitted from more information about the previous more technological society. Whilst the protagonists could not be expected to know much, due to the regime’s suppression of information, there could have been more detail given to the reader. At times until near the end it felt to me that the story had very few science fiction elements to it. In short, while some SF readers may enjoy this book, it’s not one for me.
OCEANIC by Greg EganSome while ago I reviewed a Greg Egan novel for this Group and I was rather put off him as a result. More recently I have discovered that his work can be both more varied and more accessible and in this collection of a dozen shorter pieces he displays both talent and versatility, although his predilection for highly advanced maths and physics concepts is still very much evident.
SCHILD’S LADDER by Greg Egan
Set in the far future, the story opens with an experiment to test laws of physics which have held good for twenty
thousand years. The aim is the observable creation of a new kind of spacetime expected to last for sixtrillionths of a
second; what actually happens is that the resulting novovacuum is stable and begins to expand at half the speed of
light, swallowing everything in its path. Investigators come together from all over inhabited space to study the
phenomenon and try to understand it well enough to solve the dilemma between the views of opposing factions -
whether to destroy it ( if possible ) or to surrender to it.
Humans in this remote future are as highly advanced as one might expect.
Near-immortal and super-intelligent, they travel between worlds by sending their mentalities by radio to be impressed upon blank bodies which are then remodelled to suit. They leave their previous bodies behind as backups and make further back-up copies of themselves before going into danger.
In-built microprocessors broaden their powers of communication and provide perfect memory and total recall.
To be absolutely frank I found this book hard to read and difficult to understand. The advanced mathematical 7 theories are on that tantalising edge of comprehension where I was unsure whether my failure to understand was due to my own lack of mathematical ability or simply because it was madeup nonsense. Technical references quoted at the end of the book suggest that the former is more likely, but I cannot help feeling that the author has been a bit too clever and has produced a work which will be fully accessible to only a limited readership clever enough to follow it. Such might find it really enjoyable, but for the average reader like myself it is too much like hard work to be truly entertaining.
ZENDEGI by Greg Egan
The opening third of this book is set in 2012 and recounts the visit of Martin, an Australian journalist, to Iran where he
watches a revolution take place resulting in the overthrow of the present tyrannical government. In parallel, a young
Iranian woman, Nasim, is exiled in America where she is engaged on a project aimed at working out how to transfer
the processes of real brains into computer programmes.
Fifteen years later, Nasim has returned to Iran and works for a software company providing totally-immersive computer games. She hopes to be able to develop her previous project to provide a degree of authentic pseudo- human autonomy to virtual characters in these games. Meanwhile Martin has settled in Iran, married an Iranian woman and has a son. His wife dies in a car crash and when he discovers he has cancer and is likely to die also, he concocts a plan to use Nasim’s technology to transfer his personality into a character in the computer games to which his son is becoming addicted, thus being able to stay with him while he grows up.
Perhaps this could have been a dramatic, even moving, story, but it fails. The ending is inconclusive and, apart from that, there are several auxiliary storylines which have only tenuous relevance to the main theme and are not resolved either, and several lengthy descriptions of Martin’s participation with his son in computer simulations which serve as little more than padding. The resulting totality is rambling, disconnected and ultimately boring. Plus, of course, the necessity to set it at a fairly specific time in the nearfuture means that the background to the story is all too liable to be overtaken by events (or more likely non-events). Why choose Iran as a setting in the first place?
It is probably no exaggeration to say that Egan has produced some remarkable work in the past, but no way is this more of the same. Not recommended.
UNCONQUERABLE SUN by Kate Elliott
The Head of Zeus publishing house has published some excellent SF and Fantasy in the past few years. This year
they have launched a new imprint, Ad Astra, for “high concept Science Fiction and Fantasy” with up to 30 new titles
planned for 2021 release. One of the first titles they released (in October) was this new novel (UNCONQUERABLE
SUN) by Nebula and World Fantasy finalist, Kate Elliott.
It’s the first volume in a planned space opera series (The Sun Chronicles) based loosely upon the life of Alexander the Great, but gender-flipped, so we here we have the story of Princess Sun, heir to the Queen Marshall of the Republic of Chaonia.
Humanity has spread across many stellar systems using a Beacon network built by the now vanished and mysterious Asparas Convergence. However, eight centuries ago the network suddenly and catastrophically collapsed, severing links between systems and leaving only a few functional beacons on the outer edges of the network. Isolated systems fought for control of the remaining beacons and new empires and alliances were formed. Chaonia, the home of Princess Sun was sandwiched between two larger groups, the Yele League and the Phene Empire. As the story starts, Princess Sun’s mother has finally defeated the Yele and now turns towards the Phene Empire. The story begins with the return of Princess Sun from her first command, a successful raid against a Phene garrison. However, her success causes problems: from her proud but jealous mother, the noble family factions who resent her half-Gatoi heritage, and the machinations of the Phene and Yele to destabilise and defeat the “presumptuous” Chaonians. Matters swiftly come to a head when her mother takes a new consort from one of the rival political families, there is a linked assassination attempt, and the distraction is used by the Phene to launch a massive military strike. Sun and her Companions must manoeuvre rapidly to outwit and outrun the various forces ranked against her and to save both her life and the Chaonian Republic.
If you like Space Opera, then this is a book which not only ticks all the boxes but makes for a very enjoyable read. There is intrigue, there are space battles, there are rivals who might be allies, and friends who may betray you – the author manages to keep all these different strands running and connected which is both hard to do and exciting to read. The worldbuilding is excellent and there is a fast-paced and engrossing plot. The story is told mainly from three viewpoints: Princess Sun; Persephone Lee, the rebellious daughter of a rival noble house; and Apama, a Phene pilot who is of great interest to the ruling Phene, though why is unknown to her (or the reader). This three-way split works well in allowing a reader to get a more complete grasp of events as they unfold in separate and indeed far-flung locations. If I have a criticism it is that I found the sections by Persephone and Apama more engaging as their characters were personally more appealing. The issue I had with Sun is that as a military genius she is almost too competent so is harder to relate too and occasionally comes across as cold, but to be fair that is consistent for a character with her upbringing and role.
All in all, this was a fun and entertaining novel which most fans of space opera should appreciate. The book is the first in a series and while the story reaches a satisfactory endpoint, there is still much to be resolved in a sequel, which I look forward to reading.
THE COTTINGLEY CUCKOO by A. J Elwood
After a long spell of caring for her now deceased mother, Rose, who lives with a sort of layabout guy - Paul, who takes
jobs day to day - gets a new role as a carer at Sunnyside residential home for the elderly. Of course, she does what
many of us have done before; says enough of the right things in an interview to get the job, convincing them that this
is what she wants, but all she really wants is escape. Her literature degree was halted halfway through and she longs to
return; the books also a link to her Mum. Rose is stressed and conflicted – trying to deal with Loss - of memories and
love and family - whilst her boyfriend Paul wants 2.4 children - the perfect family.
With sly looks and cruel snorts, Rose is assigned as ‘new girl’ to Mrs Charlotte Favell, who she reads to. Mrs Favell wears a mask of arrogant ice and privilege, scaring half the carers. But for some reason, Mrs Favell lets Rose read to her, and what she discovers amongst the old woman’s books is a shock.
What she finds there is the letter. A handwritten note to Arthur Conan Doyle proclaiming to have proof of fairies. In fact, the preserved corpse of one. Rose is instantly captivated and intrigued, especially as the daughter-in-law of the letter writer is also called Charlotte. Events then develop that link the present day and the past of the letter.
Weaving between fairy tale lore and elements of narrative meant to confuse, we’re left at one point wondering if fairies are real and living in care homes! But there’s a lot more going on here; veils of truth, insidious motives and manipulation. The story is epistolary on nature - using “letters” previously published as part of a novella from Newcon Press (COTTINGLEY by Alison Littlewood) - the novel flits from past to present with ease and brings with it a sense of discomfort and unease. Within it too, is an important point about the nature of caring. Rose considers; “I wonder if there’s anything so awful as someone old and alone being in pain – and I suddenly realise she might die this way, sorrowing over a daughter who never comes...” No matter how you look at it, no matter how much you love the person who needs you, being a Carer is very hard work. Rose, as narrator, thinks “We’re supposed to care, having endless wells of kindness, sharing memories and dreams, sharing.” It feels as though within this novel, published after a year in lockdown, we see and feel an acknowledgement of just how difficult it is to be a key worker. It’s a sad, yet creepy narrative and the research Elwood has completed is amazing. There are times when I’m reminded of Du Maurier’s REBECCA and the delightful Mrs Danvers through the character of Charlotte Favell. A beautifully written and haunting book with a gothic style.
FORGE OF DARKNESS: The First Book in the Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson
We all know that some reviewers can be very snobbish when it comes to genre fiction often complaining that there is
no literary merit in such as Science Fiction, Fantasy or Romance.
Even crime fiction comes in for a battering.
When it comes to explaining exactly what literary fiction is, the definitions can become as complex and varied as trying to come up with a definition of Science Fiction. For readers of popular fiction, literary fiction is often interpreted as the unreadable. More likely they mean that to get the most out of it they are required to think. A reader does not always want to be made to dwell on each sentence to grasp what the writer is intending. It would equally be a mistake to believe that no writers of fantasy can produce work of a literary quality.
For me, good literature is produced by writers who take the time to consider the structure of their sentences and their plot, who can paint pictures with their prose. You can find it any section of bookshop or library. Steven Erikson it a literate writer, his books are of literary quality.
He also has a following amongst fantasy readers, especially those tired of the usual formula. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect – nothing ever is.
FORGE OF DARKNESS is the first of a new fantasy trilogy (his last series ran to ten volumes). The world he has created is one on the verge of civil war. A problem with societies that are steeped in violence is that peace is not something they, especially the warriors, can easily settle to and accept. The ruler of the Tiste, the principal race, is known as Mother Dark. She is almost a goddess. Her consort is Draconus but some feel that she should take a husband and champion Urusander for the job. The Legion that he led against the Tiste’s enemies has been stood down, disbanded although they are all ready to take up arms again at Urusander’s request. That is not what he wants but events are being manipulated by others, including Hunn Raal, Urusander’s second in command, and the mysterious race known as the Azathanai. This is novel filled with bloodshed and betrayal and makes David Gemmell’s novels look tame.
Erikson is able to keep control of a vast landscape of characters and events but too many of these are introduced, too quickly. With the unfamiliar names that do not always trip easily off the tongue it becomes confusing. It is hard to remember who is allied to whom and whether the characters are on a side you would want to root for. This is not helped by the fact that all of the main characters, whatever their status or schooling, are prone to philosophising. While this can increase the depth of characterisation, not all of these people would have the knowledge or breadth of education to do this. It makes it hard to differentiate them.
Neither does it help matters that characters that you are beginning to enjoy the company of are sometimes suddenly and nastily killed.
Those who are already fans of Erikson’s writing will appreciate this new series. Newcomers need to be prepared to be initially confused by the plethora of characters, the concentrated, literary writing style and being made to think about the twists the plot throws up. Personally, I prefer the more relaxed style of George R.R. Martin who paints on an equally wide canvas with a larger personnel and twisted politics.
THE CRIPPLED GOD The Final Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson is a very fine writer. However, before embarking on this massive tome it would be an excellent strategy
to refresh the memory about the characters and events in previous nine books in this epic. Without this it is very
difficult to get a picture of who is on which side in this clash of armies, where they fit into the overall scheme of things
and what the purpose of the war is.
There are plenty of things that will be appreciated by Erikson’s followers and the connoisseurs of the fantasy war genre. Many of the named characters are grunts, doing as they are told, fighting and dying wherever the army ends up. Women and men stand side by side as equals. It is a shame that all, officer and soldier alike, philosophise with coherent thoughts.
The living heart of the crippled god of the title is held in a well defended Spire on the coast. The purpose of the main army of this conflict is to capture it. To this end, the forces are split, one part heading north into the impassable Glass Desert, the other to skirt this area and come up to the Spire from the south west.
The book has all the hallmarks of a fine fantasy - intricate plot, magic, dragons, the undying dead, implacable foes – but is difficult to keep track of all the characters and their fates. The deprivations of the soldiers are outlined impeccably and they are still able to fight as well as a fresh soldier at the end. A book this size is a tremendous investment in time for any reader. Unfortunately I did not care enough about the characters or feel satisfied by the outcome.
THE FIRST COLLECTED TALES OF BAUCHELAIN & KORBAL BROACH by Steven Erikson
The three novellas reprinted in this volume first appeared as slim volumes from PS Publishing between 2002 and
2007 and are published together here, for the first time.
They form a trilogy of tales centred around the characters of the title. In most fantasy novels, the wizards tend either to be on the side of the heroes or are their evil nemeses.
Bauchelain and Korbal Broach are neither.
They are necromancers who the narrator is following around for a time. They are not nice people but they are not overtly wicked. They have a different outlook on life to ordinary people.
In “Blood Follows” the first of this trilogy, they are in the town of Lamentable Moll. There have been a number of bloody murders with body parts being taken.
Emancipor Reese has the misfortune of being the coachman to one of the dead meaning that he automatically loses his job. His wife Subly is not sympathetic, sending him out to look for another with the injunction not to come back without one. Drunkenly acting on a tip-off, he suddenly finds he has been hired by the necromancers as their manservant. He is delighted to find that the job entails travel and that the first job is to secure passage out of the town on the next ship. It means he has to leave his wife, and the town, behind.
The narrative continues almost immediately in “The Lees of Laughter’s End”. The ship the necromancers sail on is stolen, crewed mainly by deserting soldiers with little seamanship. The danger comes not from their ineptness but the fact the repairs have been carried out with nails from old burials in Lamentable Moll. They are imbued with the spirits of the dead and once the ship enters the red road – the lees - that leads to Laughter’s End, they begin to manifest. Also aboard is a lich and a child created from bits of people by Korbal Broach. He is a eunuch but is obsessed with procreation. His creation is a monster which escapes and adds to the mayhem.
The third story, “The Healthy Dead”, takes place a couple of years into their travels on dry land. The two necromancers and their manservant are approaching Quaint when they are asked to sort out a problem in the city. The present king has deposed his tyrant brother and set up a beneficent regime. Unfortunately, the effect is to restrain people even more as they are not allowed to do anything which is bad for them, such as drinking or fornicating or being noisy. Children who cry are taken away to the temple.
Each of these novellas descends into gory mayhem. The necromancers are amoral rather than evil; they follow the strictures of their chosen profession. The stories are packed with black humour, especially the third. Do not dismiss them just because they are fantasy. They transcend the genre.
THE TALES OF BAUCHELAIN AND KORBAL BROACH, VOL 1 by Steven Erikson
THE TALES OF BAUCHELAIN AND KORBAL BROACH consists of three short novels which are set in the author’s
extensive Malzazan Empire series following the (mis)deeds of two sorcerers and their manservant. Bauchelain, whose
principle hobby is described as the conjuring of demons, is the predominant of the two conjurers. His companion
Korbal Broach is a shape shifting eunuch and is described as an explorer of the mysteries of life and death and all that
The first story, “Blood Follows”, is set in the city of Lamentable Moll, and describes how Emancipor Reese, a down-on-his-luck manservant, otherwise known as Mancy the Luckless, meets and is employed by Bauchelain. As turns out to be the case in all of the stories mayhem and murder abound and a swift departure from the city is required.
“The Lees of Laughter’s End” follows on from “Blood Follows” describing their voyage on the ship Suncurl. Unfortunately, unscrupulous persons in Lamentable Moll sold the captain a batch of iron nails that once resided in the wood of sarcophagi in the barrows of Lamentable Moll - the self same barrows that are well known for restless spirits. As the story relates, “even the dead can sing songs of freedom”. As the ship enters the blood-red seas off Laughter’s End the spirits of the dead awake. Fortunately (?) for the motley (very) crew, Korbal has created an homunculus which is used to fight the awakened litch. The story ends on a cliff-hanger.
“The Healthy Dead”, the third and last of the stories, is set approximately four years after the actions outlined above. This is rather unfortunate as I would have liked to know how they survived the predicament lurking at the end of “The Lees of Laughter’s End”. In this story the trio is approached by citizens of the city of Quaint to rescue them from a catastrophic plague of goodness brought about by the city’s King Macrotus after his overthrow of his brother Necrotus the Nilile. They are successful, but in an unexpected manner.
These stories are dark, grimy and murky and none of the characters is likable but they are strangely compelling. They are very well written being full of weird and colourful characters such as Ably Druther, Heck Urse, Gust Hubb, Bird Mottle and Storkul Purge the Paladin of Wellness. Overall I rather enjoyed them and would, if I had the opportunity, read more of the adventures of this unsavoury trio.
THIS RIVER AWAKENS by Steven EriksonThis is Steven Erikson’s first novel, originally published in 1998 under the name of Steve Lundin. It is not science fiction or fantasy and the only horror is in the hand fate deals to the characters. What it is, is a suburb literary novel. The setting is Canada where twelve-year-old Owen Brand and his family have just moved into the poor white community on the banks of a river. Theirs is a tale of a downward spiral into poverty. On arrival he falls in with three boys of his own age. Though he doesn’t quite fit in with them – Owen reads voraciously and far above his age – they are camouflage. The event that holds them together, but at the same time separating them, is the discovery of a body washed down from the city with the spring thaw. It colours the way they regard each other.
WILLFUL CHILD by Steven Erikson
The first thing to do about this book is to forget the hype as the intelligent reader will immediately become suspicious.
Publicists only go overboard for one reason – they desperately want you to buy this book. The question to ask is why is
the hype necessary?
Steven Erikson has gained a huge following during the publication of his ten volume epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. He has written another novel and a selection of stores in the same world. His best book by far is THIS RIVER AWAKENS, an exquisitely written novel about young people at an age when the decisions they make reflect the rest of their life. It was his first novel and only recently republished. First time round it didn’t spark the interest his fantasy has.
It should have done.
The first clue that this book, WILLFUL CHILD, is not High Fantasy, is the space ship on the cover. For a publisher to issue a book very different from an author’s usual output is always a risk. Some fans will take a look at the packaging and put it back on the grounds that they ‘don’t read that space stuff’. The first danger is losing the readers expecting more of the same. They need to be supremely confident that more of the reading public will look further than the name – the most prominent thing on the cover – and at least read the blurb. This is another problem in that names get associated with types of books and thus alienating those who might enjoy it when a writer goes off in a different direction.
Most of us readers of SF, whatever our era, have something that defines the beginning of that interest. For the older generation, it may well have been Dan Dare in The Eagle, for others, Dr Who, Star Wars or Fireball XL5. Erikson’s early influences obviously included Star Trek.
WILLFUL CHILD is both a parody and an homage to the TV series
The technology that enabled humans to venture into space was delivered by accident. A century later, Captain Hadrian Sawbuck gets his first command, the ASF Willful Child. He is younger than most captains and his attitude is that of a kid with a new toy. His first mission is apparently simple – to catch a smuggler. He doesn’t make the same mistake others would, but identifies the right ship. However his victory is short-lived as the AI doing the smuggling proceeds to take over his ship and sends it straight into a war zone and a series of diplomatic incidents.
The result is mayhem.
Anyone who is familiar with Star Trek will know some of the decisions the captain makes would not be tolerated in a modern navy – space or otherwise. For example, having all the significant command crew members on a hostile planet at the same time would be a courts martial offence, but then Star Trek was modelled after the adventures of Horatio Hornblower where a captain was expected to lead. Erikson exaggerates this trait in the antics of his hero.
The important thing about this book is that it should not be taken
seriously. It will appeal to those who enjoy seeing their fictional heroes parodied and those who like the idea of farce with spaceships. Anyone who expects this to be an SF version of Erikson’s epic fantasy will very quickly get the rug pulled out from under their feet. It is always good to try something new, whether as a reader or a writer, though this might not have made it to the bookshelves if Erikson hadn’t already got a formidable reputation.
ICE TOWER by Christopher Evans
Or is it 'ICETOWER'? I think so, because although the (rather nice) cover clearly says ICE TOWER, inside it is always
ICETOWER. While I’m at it, another couple of niggles about the cover. The front illo shows too young men standing
back-to-back on the top of a tower on which they barely have room to stand. This never happens. Also — and this
complaint applies not just to this cover, but one sees it everywhere (such as in Sad Café's 'Everyday Hurts'): it is not, as
it says here, "It's the same everyday." It should be "It's the same every day". Think about it (the copywriter obviously
OK, now to the book. I didn't know when I picked up this review copy that it is a juvenile. How would I? Only by reading the small print on the credits page can one find "a Dolphin paperback by Orion Children's Books". Surely children's books should advertise this fact on the cover, along with some guide as to age suitability? Notwithstanding, this is quite an entertaining, if short, read, and I was quite pleased with myself for working out the 'word puzzle' it contains, early on. Two boys, friends, but one having seemingly turned nasty, are on their way home on the school bus. It is snowing, and the driver leaves to make a 'phone call at the top of a steep hill. One of the boys fiddles with the hand rake, and they hurtle downwards. . . When Rhys awakes, his friend Jack is in some sort of coma, and he has to drag him around -- fortunately getting lighter and lighter — as he encounters a series of fantasy-type adventures in the Icetower, populated by animated paintings, a Shadowman, a Black Knight, a talking jackdaw who gives Rhys cryptic word clues, and various mythic beasts. Young teenagers should enjoy it.
Apparently this is one of the Dreamtime series, with other titles written by Stephen Bowkett, Jenny Jones and Colin Greenland. But each story is obviously quite separate and individual, except that, presumably, it takes place in this ’other’, dreamlike world.
A KINGDOM BESIEGED by Raymond E FeistA KINGDOM BESIEGED takes place five years after the conclusion of AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS. In A KINGDOM BESIEGED Pug, the magician and his colleagues in the ‘Conclave of Shadows’ are still investigating the causes of the demon incursions into Midkemia and in this book a different aspect of the Midkemia saga is pursued.
AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS by Raymond E Feist
AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS is the concluding volume in the two-part Demon War series which began with RIDES
A DREAD LEGION. Actually the series started about 20 books earlier with MAGICIAN the first book set in the author’s
Midkemia universe, with one of the main characters being Pug, the magician of the above title.
As with all of Raymond Feist’s books AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS is a multistrand adventure following a number of characters in their epic struggle against the forces of evil; in this case a horde of demons and a mad magician (not Pug, he is a hero leading a secret group known as the ‘Conclave of Shadows’). This adventure climaxes in a battle in the Valley of Lost Men. As in the previous books, the forces of good prevail, at least temporarily. Other members of the Conclave active in this story include two Star Elves, Gulamendis (a Demon Master) and Laromendis, his brother who is a master of illusion and the Star Elves (the Taredhel), having been hounded off their world by the demons in the first part of this saga. These two and a human Demon Master, Amirantha, provide Pug with ‘expert’ support and research into demonology.
Another strand follows Sandreena, a Knight Adamant in the ‘Order of the Shield of the Weak’, the martial arm of the Temple of Dala. She and Amirantha have a troublesome history.
Other significant characters include General Kasper (See TALON OF THE SILVER HAWK), Creegan a Father Bishop in Sandreena’s order, James (Jim) Dasher Jameson the Head of Intelligence for the Kingdom of the Isles (one of the major nations in Midkemia). In the background is the enduring influence of Marcos the Black, Pug’s dead father in law.
After 20 volumes the overall saga is becoming a bit tired and formulaic, particularly during the last few books. That said the book is an enjoyable gentle easy read with many interesting characters. The Midkemia chronicle continues with A KINGDOM BESIEGED.
FLIGHT OF THE NIGHTHAWKS by Raymond E FeistThis is a complex book in some ways, full of ideas and characters – and it can take some thought to get your head around it. It features a powerful mage and his sons fighting to keep peace as their enemies seek to thwart this, especially the evil Leso Varen. Kaspa, Talwin and Amafi are three ordered by Magnus to find out the conspirators against the emperor. But as they soon discover, the royal house contains those already bound to Varen’s service.
BRINGER OF LIGHT by Jaine Fenn
In this, the fourth book in The Hidden Empire sequence, Jaine Fenn begins to bring together strands that she has
been developing over the first three volumes. In the first, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, we were introduce to Taro, a boy
existing on the underside of the flying city of Khesh, and Nual, an assassin employed by the same city. Nual is a
female Sidhe, a dangerous race that was supposedly destroyed millennia ago. Khesh is operated by a male Sidhe
and the sexes are deadly enemies.
Jarek, the third member of the team, spent volume two, CONSORTS OF HEAVEN, on the planet of Serenein, a world kept hidden from the rest of the inhabited universe. He has discovered that the female Sidhe are using it to breed boys whose brains are used to power the FTL ships.
Jarek, Taro and Nual connect in GUARDIANS OF PARADISE and flee in Jarek’s ship when the Sidhe send a hit squad to kill her. This novel is pure space opera with plenty of tension and action. BRINGER OF LIGHT belongs to the same stable.
The plan is to persuade the male Sidhe to give them a beacon which they can set up near Serenein. This should connect the planet to the rest of civilisation and effectively bring a halt to the trade in psychically talented boys. Naturally, it isn’t as easy as they anticipate especially as Khesh insists on sending an avatar with them to protect the location of the male Sidhe’s domain. In the meantime, the people Jarek left running things on Serenein are having their own problems trying to keep the status quo long enough for Jarek to return.
Fenn is very good at action and plotting but she does not spend the time developing the emotional side to her characters. Taro and Nual are lovers and have a mental link but the passion between them is subdued. Readers who have enjoyed the previous novels will like the way the plot is pushed along here. New readers will need to begin with volume one.
CONSORTS OF HEAVEN by Jaine Fenn
Jaine Fenn’s first novel, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, was a fascinating, hard SF novel set on a floating city with an
interestingly portrayed dichotomy of social mores with the focus being on the underclass.
CONSORTS OF HEAVEN is set in the same universe but you wouldn’t believe it. In fact, for much of its length it reads like fantasy.
Kerin is a young widow who is tolerated in her village because of her skill with herbs. This is a village without modern amenities like electricity or plumbing.
Her son, Damaru, gives all the appearances of being autistic but has a talent for telekinesis. Two factors are about to influence her life. The first is that Damaru finds a naked stranger in the marshes. This man, who Kerin names Sais, has lost all memory and in some ways, appears to be more of a simpleton than her son.
The other significant event is that Damaru is to be sent down onto the plains to, hopefully, serve the Skymothers. These are portrayed as goddesses, so his selection is an honour. She and Sais join the caravan that is to take them from her remote mountain village to the City of Light.
The connections with the previous novel are slight and do not become apparent until late in the story and unfortunately many of the plot elements are predictable. It does not have the complexity of PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS and would probably have been better told from a different perspective, to avoid the apparent fantasy aspects. That apart, this is a stand-alone novel and presages a lot more stories set in the same universe.
GUARDIANS OF PARADISE by Jaine Fenn
Jaine Fenn has embarked on an ambitious potentially nine-volume series of which GUARDIANS OF PARADISE is the
third. So far, each of them has a different flavour. The first of the series, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, was set in a highly
technical environment. The city of Khesh floats above the atmosphere of a barren planet. In it, we are introduced to
two characters. Nual is an angel.
This means she is a physically altered executioner. Taro lives in the undertow, the maze of walkways and hovels clinging to the underside of the city.
Volume two, CONSORTS OF HEAVEN, is very different in setting. It is an adventure on a low-tech world that has many of the trappings of a fantasy novel. It is only towards the end that it becomes clear that it has links with the universe of PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS. It also introduces the third character, Jarek, who is part of the triad that GUARDIANS OF PARADISE revolves around.
By the start of the third novel (providing you have read the other two) we know that Nual is Sidhe. This race was thought to have been wiped out a long time ago, to the great relief of humanity as they are extremely manipulative and have the power to bend minds to their will. Nual is young, in Sidhe terms and was little more than a child when Jarek found her aboard a derelict Sidhe mother ship, the only sane survivor of some kind of disaster – she didn’t know what. The Sidhe, however, want her either back in the fold or dead. They don’t care which. They have already, (in PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS) tried to use her friend and mentor as an assassin. Now they have sent a more blatant hit squad.
Jarek, by coincidence, arrives just in time for the shoot out. Once they have escaped, Jarek tells Nual and Taro that he has discovered the source of the ‘shift units’ that take space craft between systems instantaneously. They are the rewired brains of boys with a kinetic talent, bred for that trait on Serenein, the planet in CONSORTS OF HEAVEN. Despite the fact that it might eventually lead to the end of faster than light space travel, the three team up to find where these boys are processed and put a stop to their torture. If it also wipes out the Sidhe once and for all, they decide it is a price worth paying.
Whereas, volume one was an unusual, high tech setting with a deal of politics and volume two appeared superficially more like fantasy, this third volume is a more traditional space opera with a different kind of action and intrigue. Although Jaine hopes that each volume will stand alone, it is advisable to start with PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS in order to understand the full import of the series.
HIDDEN SUN (Shadowlands 1) by Jaine Fenn
I was pleased to see the return of Jaine Fenn to writing novels after a long absence (although she has continued with
other forms of writing, including winning a BSFA Award for her short story “Liberty Bird” in 2017). For those who don’t
know her work, her previous excellent Hidden Empire series of SF novels was set seven thousand years in the future
and were published by Gollancz. This new novel is with a different publisher (Angry Robot) and is described as a
duology, with part 2 (BROKEN EMPIRE) available in 2019.
The story is set on a world divided into “shadowlands” and “skylands” regions. Only the skykin can live in the hot, sun-baked skylands due to their symbiotic relationship with a creature called an “animus” to which they are bonded as they reach adulthood. During childhood they are raised in the shadowlands in creche schools until old enough to bond. The story is told in alternating chapters by 3 main characters. These are Rhia, who as a privileged noblewoman living in the shadowland of Shen, is able to explore her interest in science and astronomy despite it being seen as unbecoming and inappropriate for a woman. Dej is a young girl who is with some trepidation and reluctance about to undergo her initiation into the skykin. Sadakh is the eparch (a religious leader) in the neighbouring shadowland of Zekt who is experimenting unethically on his flock in trying to duplicate the effects of the human/animus bond without a live animus.
The main story starts when Rhia decides to attach herself to a small covert military group sent by Shen’s ruler to bring back her missing, rebellious younger brother (and the last heir to her family’s considerable estate). There are complications with the rescue as various other parties are also interested in retrieving her brother. Both Rhia, used to a life of luxury and the new, inexperienced skykin, Dej will have to co-operate to get Rhia and her brother back safely to Shen.
The author has constructed a very different and intriguing world and society. The society appears to be that of a medieval level as in many fantasies but there are elements and hints that suggest there may be more scientific explanations for the shadow/sky land separations (perhaps some large geostationary orbital platforms?) and that the separation of skykin / shadowkin did not always exist.
I liked the character of Rhia in particular. She is well-nuanced – the reader admires her intellectual curiosity and determination to pursue an “inappropriate” interest in science, but she also has flaws and is forced to examine how much privilege and luxury has protected her from everyday hardships and realities. Dej is to some extent a reflection of Rhia, in that as a newly-formed skykin she also is having to adapt to unfamiliar and difficult circumstances as she tries to decide her place in a strange and very different culture than the one she has been raised in. In contrast to these two it felt that there was less exploration of Sadakh and my feeling was that there remained more to be uncovered about his activities and motivations (presumably in the sequel).
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this book I did feel at the end that for me personally that there were still a lot of things that had been hinted at that still remained unresolved. Now that may be just my science-inclined mind as I kept distracting myself by thinking about what the sources and back story of the geography and biology involved in the sky/shadow divisions were. There again that is also a compliment to the imagination of the author as she has created something unique that has clearly captured my interest. I look forward to seeing in the sequel how many of my guesses and speculations prove to be either right or hopelessly off-base. A welcome return to novel writing by a talented author.
PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS by Jaine Fenn
The Angels referred to in the novel’s title are revered female assassins, sanctioned by the state, whose role is the
assassination of public figures. Welcome then to Chesh City: Topside; an opulent city afloat two kilometres above the
surface of a planet.
The Angels are key to the story which begins with the murder of the Angel Malia despite her revered untouchable status in the society. Her nephew Taro was both her servant and inadvertently brought home with him her killer.
PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS is told in part from his perspective in the aftermath of the murder with his status revoked and he is forced into the city’s underworld. Hiding within an underworld gang, Taro must survive, act as a spy for the much feared Minister who controls the Angels and, for his own purpose track down and avenge his aunt’s murder.
Alternative chapters chart the progress of Elarn, an off-world singer of ancient choral works on an inter-planetary concert tour. Narrowly escaping being caught in the crossfire of an Angel’s assassination on aristocrat, Salik Vidoran, they befriend each other. The story charts their progress as lovers whilst we learn that Elarn’s choral tour serves as a front for a covert search for a past acquaintance. Taro and Elarn’s separate paths merge as they face the threat to the survival of the entire city their actions uncover.
Rather than widescreen large space opera, the novel reads as a thriller, short and punchy with a clear prose and authentic haracterisation. Whilst there is a strong sense of world building, it took me rather too long to appreciate that the city described was actually afloat, (although an earlier examination of the front cover would have helped me there).
The city is a portrayed as dark and foreboding and has a gothic vibe. Like all cities, Chesh City encompasses the vast array of society, from a wealthy upper class, to the criminal gangs within a large underclass. However, the actual cast of characters we follow is relatively small which made the conspiracy thread to the novel reasonably straightforward to second guess, although these are minor quibbles. This is an enjoyable debut novel and I look forward to Fenn’s future work. And yes, the Angels can fly.
QUEEN OF NOWHERE by Jaine Fenn
When an author lovingly creates a universe, giving it a plausible background history and spreads it over a vast area of
space, it seems a shame to waste it on one book. Jaine Fenn has set all five of her novels against the same
background. The universe is recognisable because of certain features carried over from one to another but the overlap
of characters and worlds, though present, is mostly incidental.
The main plot thrust is the idea that a race known as the Sidhe once dominated humanity as it spread throughout the universe, After a rebellion, it is generally believed that the Sidhe were all killed. A small group believe otherwise. In other novels in this series we have met three of them, Jarek, Taro and Nual. Nual is actually Sidhe but has turned against her kind. She is also an Angel – a physically and mentally enhanced assassin. Taro, her lover, is on his way to becoming an Angel, but his implants are new. Jarek owns a space ship. Between them, they have cut off the source of the kernels needed to pilot the translight space ships.
They are not the only ones engaged in the battle against the Sidhe.
QUEEN OF NOWHERE follows the efforts of Bez to bring down the Sidhe.
We first met her in GUARDIANS OF PARADISE, the third book in this sequence, when Jarek asked her to decipher information he had stolen from a wrecked Sidhe ship. She is a databreaker and probably the best hacker in known space. For a long time, Bez has known that the Sidhe are still around, influencing human activity from within. The information Jarek shared with her has given her a good idea of who and where they are. Her problem is how to expose them all, preferably simultaneously so they cannot alert each other, change their identities and hide. Bez has set up a network of people in positions to do small but significant acts which will have larger consequences and help her achieve her ends. She is aware that the Sidhe probably know what she is up to and she needs to stay one step ahead.
To this end she has spent years building up funds in various places and has a bank of identities to assume to help her physically navigate space.
As Bez closes in on the information she needs to put her plan into action, she feels the Sidhe network closing in around her. At one point, she enlists Jarek’s help to get her out of a sticky situation but pulls a disappearing trick when she discovers that Nual is Sidhe.
For much of the time she feels that she is fighting a lone battle – she dare not trust anyone - but on Tarset station, a space-hub and a way station between destinations, she encounters Imbarin Tierce. He becomes an unlikely ally in her life’s work.
In a situation as complex as the one that Fenn has set up, it would be impossible for a handful of adventurers, which is basically what Jarek and co. are, to bring about the downfall of a race that that has had centuries to embed itself into human society. The introduction of another prong of attack is a good move and Bez is an interesting character.
She is skilful and highly motivated.
In each of the novels in this series there is a different flavour depending on the setting for the segment of the tale. Bez, though, passes through the hubs where space traders congregate too quickly to fully appreciate the lives of those in the different echelons of the society within the complex structures (which are different from the floating cities of PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS but where the lives of the inhabitants were explored in greater depth). QUEEN OF NOWHERE does progress the story and there is enough left hanging to make the reader look forward to the next instalment.
THE SHIPS OF ALEPH by Jaine Fenn
If you are going to start a new small publishing company, then it is vital to produce a quality product from the start and
this novella is certainly that. Tower of Chaos Press are a small independent publisher, run by Dave Weddell (Jaine
Fenn’s partner) and THE SHIPS OF ALEPH is its first publication. It aims to produce mainly short stories and novellas,
initially mainly by Jaine Fenn. THE SHIPS OF ALEPH was originally published as a limited edition chapbook for
Novacon 42, when Jaine Fenn was Guest of Honour. It is now being made available as an eBook by Tower of Chaos
A natural phase for children is the “Why?” stage, when they want to know the answer to everything about the world and how it works. Most people grow out of it but some adults retain that curiosity, not least among them many SF writers and readers. THE SHIPS OF ALEPH is a tale of that sort of curiosity and how far you would be prepared to go in pursuit of knowledge and truth. It is a science fiction story although it may not seem so at first. The narrator, Lachin grows up in a small fishing village. His enquiring mind and a lame leg leave him isolated from his peers. When the Duke announces a project to build a ship to explore the seas, Lachin is eager to join despite the prevalent mood that it is ungodly and thus doomed to failure. Thrown into the sea when the ship founders at the edge of the world he wakes up seemingly back in his home village although he is the only inhabitant. From there he faces a series of choices all of which involve remaining in his current state of knowledge or risking the unknown and ultimately a chance at another exploratory journey unimaginable to his earlier self.
I really enjoyed this story. The pace is quite gentle but keeps the reader interested. The characterisation of Lachin, as one would expect of Jaine Fenn’s work is excellent and he is a very believable and sympathetic character. Considerable attention has been paid to the structure of the story with the theme of journeys both spatial and intellectual integrated really well without detracting from the actual narrative – not an easy thing and one many authors don’t always manage satisfactorily. Although the story fits into Jaine Fenn’s SF Hidden Empires series, the story still works even without an awareness of these. As a final incentive to buy it also has a superb piece of blue-toned cover art by David A Hardy.
THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde’s first novel is an alternate world crime-fantasy that’s clever in places but too silly to be enjoyable. It's an
example of an author putting every fantasy theme he can think of into the same novel. The result is a mish-mash of
unrelated and conflicting elements which lurches from one bit of contrived humour to the next.
The main plot concerns Tuesday Next (this is the narrator's name, I kid you not; if it offends you deeply you’d better stop reading now, because there’s worse to come) who works for LiteraTec, the Special Operations branch that deals with literary crimes.
She is pitted against Acheron Hades, an international criminal and superhuman figure, who specialises in stealing original manuscripts and changing them, causing all editions to be altered. Martin Chuzzlewit is the first to go, then Jane Eyre. The sequence in which Tuesday goes inside Jane Eyre to protect its integrity is original, mostly well written and would have made a fine novelette.
Alas, Fforde clutters up the novel with the Crimean War (still in progress after 130 years), time travel, vampires, black holes and relativity, conspiracy theories, the genetic recreation of dodos as pets, a lot of ESP powers, violent literary disputes, bureaucracy and romance. His characters, many of whom suffer from ridiculous names like Paige Turner, Dr Runcible Spoon and Ossie Mandias, 7 have no substance, while his baddies (no redeeming features) seem to have stepped out of a comic book. The result is a novel that's unduly difficult and unrewarding for its first half, with too much bad humour.
Fforde is a promising writer but a clumsy and inexperienced one.
Apparently there will be a whole series of Tuesday Next adventures, but I won't be reading them.
THE WELL OF LOST PLOTS by Jasper Fforde
As a speaker, Jasper Fforde is entertaining and a good salesman for his books.
Whether you like his writing or not will depend much on your taste in written humour. As the title suggests, there is a degree of reliance on puns. There are a lot of lasting images and interesting throwaways.
Tills is the third of the series starring Thursday Next, a jurisfiction agent. Her job takes her into fictional worlds to solve crimes. This fictional world is a dimension which underlies our own. She is in the awkward situation that her husband was eliminated as a child, by time travelling criminals, so theoretically she should never have met him.
Although no-one else remembers him, she does, and she is pregnant. At the start of this novel, she is hiding out in an unpublished crime thriller, having done a swap with one of the characters. This means that at intervals she has to act out the scenes from the book which is so dreadful that it is likely to be demolished. Humour is added by the presence of the pet Dodo, which has laid an egg, and by having billeted on her two Generics - unformed characters who have to go to school to learn roles in order to get a job working as a character in a novel.
An added complication is that jurisfiction agents are being bumped off. Thursday has to find out why as she is likely to be next.
The plot is actually pretty thin and this novel relies on the readers’ knowledge of books and characters that are mentioned and the way they are manipulated. Fortunately, there is internal consistency or it could all get a bit too silly. One problem I had was with the character Harris Tweed. Despite being told that he is from the Outworld, like Thursday, and a real person, I kept seeing the fictional Harris Tweed - the rotund, monacled detective from THE EAGLE comic.
TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney
In this long but tightly packed book Jack Finney brings to a climax the ideas he had been exploring for a few years
previously in a number of short stories. The basic idea is to dress a man in ninety-year old clothes, fill his head with
ninety-year old thoughts and put him in a ninety-year old building from which he will be able to step out into the New
York of ninety years ago.
From this beginning the story branches out into three or four intertwined sub-plots with sufficient unexpected twists to keep the reader guessing until the last possible minute - the ending is inevitable (especially in relation to the previous stories already mentioned) but it remains in doubt even until the last chapter. If there were nothing more to it than that it would still be a good book, but to dismiss it in this way is to overlook the meticulous research and sincere enthusiasm with which the author writes of that bygone age, conveying an irresistible impression of a far better time in which to live and belong.
It is a pity that the illustrations, which are important to the story, have not been reproduced better, but that is only a minor fault which cannot spoil a wonderfully satisfying read. An excellent book by a sadly underrated author.
THE OVERSIGHT by Charlie Fletcher
One of the major problems with modern fantasy is the over use of standard tropes. It is refreshing therefore to see a
story which doesn’t rely on the almost default vampires and werewolves. Instead THE OVERSIGHT incorporates far
less familiar figures from British and Irish folklore and this works extremely well in my opinion. From the sinister bone
magic of the Sluagh, the disturbing breath-stealing Alp to even the Officers of the Oversight the author demonstrates a
great deal of imagination.
THE OVERSIGHT is set in an alternative Victorian England, where humanity is largely unaware of the other “magical” creatures which share their world. These “supranatural” have interbred over the centuries leading to hybrid or “mongrel” humans who possess extra power or magical abilities above the norm. Some of these form “The Oversight”, a secret society who police the boundaries between normal humanity and the “supranatural” and defend against that portion of the “supranatural” who would prey on the “mundane”. Organised into “hands” of five, the members are volunteers, each with different abilities. However the Oversight are struggling, reduced to their last “hand” of five members and various factions are plotting to destroy them. When a drunkard brings a girl to their London House, they look to have finally found a new recruit. However the girl is an unwitting trap set by their enemies. Her actions lead to many complications and the girl herself must fight to regain her memories and free will. The action is set in two main locations, the urban landscape of London and a travelling carnival and the contrast between the two works well rather than just having a pure urban fantasy.
This is Charlie Fletcher’s first adult novel (after the successful and enjoyable children’s fantasy Stoneheart trilogy). He has also been a successful screenwriter and film editor for many years and I think this experience shows in his writing. Throughout the book there is a strong sense of both menace and the macabre without unnecessary graphic description. The various characters seem very believable and diverse. Dialogue in particular is well used and avoids the use of modern English idiom which often jars in other novels set in the past. Educated characters especially use more formal and wider vocabulary that you associate with earlier eras. Although the story uses a Victorian setting it is definitely not steampunk – no airships or weird science in sight. For those of you who like Fantasy, this is an excellent read and thoroughly recommended. The characters are well-drawn and I wanted to know more about them. The book reaches a conclusion but there is still a significant amount of back story and future developments to be explored. I am definitely looking forward to the sequel.
MERRY-GO-ROUND and Other Words by Bryn Fortey
In choosing a book to purchase, a number of factors are taken into account, either consciously or subconsciously. The
cover is always one.
Good ones draw the eye and give a hint of what kind of book will be found between the covers. An intriguing title may well cause the book to be taken off the shelf but in the age of the celebrity the name of the author may well be a deciding factor. So it is my job to help you decide if Bryn Fortey is a name worth watching out for. For some of you, the question uppermost in your minds will be ‘Who?’ For those of the older generation, brought up reading such volumes as the FONTANA BOOK OF HORROR, or the historians of horror fiction the name may be more familiar.
This collection can be regarded, not just as a tribute to the author but also to the enduring quality of horror fiction. Stories published early in the last century by greats such as M.R. James are still thought of with affection and still hold insights into human behaviour. So, too, do those printed more recently. A good story should not be judged by the era when it was written. Bryn Fortey’s fiction, as represented here, covers a period from the 1970s to the present time. Within these covers you will find twenty-one (or perhaps twenty- two) stories and six groups of poems.
The discrepancy in the number of stories relates to the first and last pieces. ‘Shrewhampton North-East’ is a ghoulish little story revolving around the nightmare of train travel. In this case the narrator and his mother are stranded at the eponymous station along with nine others, some of whom have been waiting for three days. ‘Shrewhampton North-West’ which resolves the situation owes much to Lovecraft.
Here the title story is second for aesthetic reasons. One thing I would like to have seen in this book is the first date of publication of each story. This is because ‘Merry-Go-Round’ has a number of familiar themes and knowing how they fitted into the history of the horror genre would give an indication of the degree of originality.
The collection also contains science fiction. ‘Ithica Or Bust’ belongs to the school of zany science fiction that only those with a good grasp of ancient Greek myth will fully appreciate.
‘Remnants’ is a very different kind of science fiction, dealing with the issues arising when a colony ship crashes on a planet. Instead of everyone pulling together for survival, nastier basic instincts have surfaced. To add to the unconventional approach, Fortey brings the reader in towards the end of the attempt to survive, allowing him to play with the unexpected. ‘The Oscar Project’ begins in a bleak, dystopian future, for which many blame Christianity. The main character is conscripted to work on a project to view the past, until an accident allows him to interact with it. Despite certain similarities to Moorcock’s ‘Behold the Man’ the approach, origins and motivations of the characters are different.
Music plays an important part in this collection, both the stories and poems. ‘Denton’s Delight’ follows jazz saxophonist Hal Denton, on the downward spiral after hitting the big time too young. Now without the creativity he once had – until he plays at a South Wales Jazz club.
Vampires who feed on things other than blood? This is the inspiration behind ‘The Pawnshop Window’. On the day they buried Louis Armstrong, another trumpeter remembers what might have been - a poignant story. Other musically themed stories include ‘First Words’ where Fortey is blending at least three disparate ideas into one brief story. It shouldn’t work, but somehow, it does.
Perhaps the stories with most impact are those that take a small idea and paint it in such a way to set the reader thinking about the possibilities. In ‘Wordsmith’ best-sellers are taken from the depths of the psyche of the insane. Another seemingly small idea drives the horror behind ‘Skulls’. Eric Brown’s superpower is the ability to recognise who will die soon; that person’s head appearing as a skull.
Poems are often far more personal than fiction. A good poet, and
Bryn Fortey is one, often expose more of themselves through poetry than any other kind of writing, including autobiography. They give an insight into the soul of a person. The poetry here is divided into six groups. The first, highly personal and poignant, are messages to his wife and son and as such, we are privileged to be able to share them. The second and fifth groups show Fortey’s passion for music. Science fiction images and ideas can sometimes be conveyed more powerfully in just a few words. The third group does this, especially ‘A Taxi Driver on Mars’. Those in the fourth group begin with two memories, the poet looking back from his autumn years before looking the other way, wistfulness followed by a trip into darkness with ‘Nightfall’ - a poem to produce shivers. The final ones provide a sense of dread a fitting group to be placed just before the final story.
If I have any criticism of the poetry, it is the layout. Where a poem goes onto more than one page, the other part would have been better on the facing page so that whole of the structure can be seen with one glance.
Often the structure of a poetic form adds to the appreciation of the word pattern.
Always with an author that a potential reader might not be familiar with, the question remains – why should I buy it? For anyone who values quality poetry, that is one good reason. For others – these stories have variety but the best of them show how a range of ideas can be meshed together to form small gems. Not everyone will like all the stories but it is worth savouring the best, and trying to figure out how Fortey manages to juxtapose the impossible and make it work.
ASTRA (The Gaia Chronicles 1) by Naomi Foyle
ASTRA is a science fiction novel set in the near future. It is the story of a young girl growing up in what appears, at
least initially, to be an ideal society. After a worldwide collapse of civilisation precipitated by a fuel crisis and flooding
due to global warming, the society of Is- Land is formed by the remnants of various “hippy”/ “low impact” communes
whose low reliance on conventional fossilfuel based technologies meant they were among the first to recover. Their
new society is built on a worship of Gaia with minimal reliance on technology. It is clear though that they do possess
sophisticated technology with the use of genetically engineered plants and animals and computer “tablettes”. The
society structure is also complicated as everyone has three types of parent (although one person may be more than
one). These categories are Birth, Code (the person who provided the DNA) and Shelter (the parent who raises the
child). Astra is being raised jointly by adoptive “Shelter” parents, married couple Nimma and Klor who she lives with
and Hokma, an emotionally remote scientist.
We first meet the eponymous Astra as a seven year old girl, with following sections when she is 11 and 17. The story throughout is told from her viewpoint but in third person. Naomi Foyle is very good at showing how Astra’s perspective and understanding changes as she matures and I found the developing character of Astra very convincing. In particular her contrasting relationships with her difficult Shelter mother, Nimma and her more accepting Shelter father, Klor work very well. Initially like most of her peers, Astra dreams of defending Is-Land from wicked Non-Landers who want to infiltrate and destroy their sanctuary. This cohort of children are to be given a Security Shot to help them be better defenders. In a decision which will drastically affect her future the young Astra is persuaded by Hokma to fake having her injection as it will limit her intellect and her chance to fulfil her other dream of becoming a famous scientist.
In later sections we see the consequences of this decision as she becomes less like her peers and must constantly hide her differences. As this balancing act becomes harder (especially as she matures through adolescence to adulthood) we gradually uncover more of the controlling totalitarian nature of Is-Land society and that the portrayal of the outsider Non-Landers is far from accurate. There are some uncomfortable sections as we discover how society deals with non-conformists. I found them particularly effective as they have an Orwellian feel where they are justified as for the good of the individual or society.
The story is not fast-paced but progressively reveals more of the “utopian” society as something quite unpleasant. This subtle approach is one I very much liked but may not suit everybody. This is excellent Science Fiction and I heartily recommend it for anyone who likes their fiction thought-provoking and challenging. Its slower pace may not suit everyone especially if you prefer space opera/technology-heavy SF – more reminiscent of LeGuin than hard SF authors. It should also be noted that the Is-Lander society is very open about nudity and sexuality with children encouraged to know their bodies from an early age. Although this is not usually explicit it may make some readers uncomfortable.
ROOK SONG (The Gaia Chronicles 2) by Naomi Foyle
The first novel of this series, ASTRA (reviewed BSFG #514) was the story of a young girl growing up and gradually
discovering that the perceived utopia of her country (Is-Land) is in fact a controlling, totalitarian society. As a child she
is persuaded to avoid a gene-modifying “Security Shot”, which all the village children are to receive as she is told it
will limit her intellect. The consequences of this decision ultimately lead to disaster for her and her foster parent,
Hokma. At the end of the story she is exiled from her country, still suffering from the physical and mental effects of the
“memory pacification” brainwashing to which she has been subjected. The first novel had given very little detail of the
outside “Non-Land” other than as somewhere which was intent on destroying or infiltrating Is-Land.
At the beginning of ROOK SONG, the seventeen year old Astra is given shelter and citizenship by a multi- national UN-style organisation called CONC. Non-Land is revealed as a desert land extensively damaged by the pollution of the societal collapse which led to the formation of Is-Land. It is not a homogeneous society but consists of various factions. These include some of the original inhabitants of Is-Land who were expelled by the settlers who now run Is-Land. It is a land of poverty, disease and disability which is a huge contrast and shock to Astra. Is-Land here exists behind a heavily defended wall and despite its avowed ecological principles also controls a mine whose unadmitted uranium deposits are blamed for the high rate of genetic deformities in the native population. As Astra tries to concentrate on finding the exiled father she has never known, she becomes a focus for various factions (including the Is-Lander military arm, IMBOD) due to her resemblance to a prophesied saviour. We also see the full effects of the “Security Shot” on her maturing contemporaries who are becoming easily manipulated and savage “super-soldiers”.
The first story was told very much from Astra’s point of view. In this second novel, separate chapters concentrate on different characters’ viewpoints. With the only introduction to many new characters being a name as a chapter title, this was very confusing. I also felt that Astra, who had been a convincing character in the first book, was now inconsistent and did things purely to advance the plot at times. This book has clearly become a more obvious allegory about the Middle East and Israel and I feel it has sacrificed the subtlety that I liked in the first book. The Is-landers have become more caricatures than characters and there are some nasty violent scenes. The author then throws in religious, gender and disability politics and Astra’s story, which had potential becomes drowned beneath too many obvious metaphors. There is a long tradition of good SF novels as commentaries on politics (eg 1984 and THE HANDMAID’S TALE) but it still needs the balance between message and a strong story and unfortunately in my estimation, this has swung too far towards the former at the expense of the latter.
THE STRANGER by Max Frei
This book contains a series of Fantasy/Detective novellas set in a world where magic is widely practiced yet banned
beyond a certain level. The ban was put in place several hundred years before the events of this book because the
world was a chaotic and dangerous place. The setting seems similar to the beginning of the 20th century but the
things that run on electricity or petrol here, run on magic there. The central character, Max, has come from our world
after having visited this other world several times in dreams. He has been chosen before arrival for a job with the
‘Minor Secret Investigative Force of the city of Echo, Capital of the Unified Kingdom’ by Sir Juffin Hully, its Most
Venerable Head. We follow him and the other members of the MSIF through investigations into a murder in a locked
room where the only witnesses are inanimate objects - it's difficult trying to get a statement from a traumatised wooden
box; the discovery of a cook who is found in his bed turned into a mound of pate; and an investigation into a city that
may or may not still exist (although it still does well in the tourist trade).
The plots are effective. The Fantasy/Detective field is so small that it's possible that most of this hasn't been done before. The great failing is in the writing. I can't tell whether this is due to things that don't translate well from the original Russian or an attempt to translate the idiosyncrasies of the original writer or just that the translator's English isn't that good. Things do feel odd, as they should in a world of this sort, but there is also the sense of jokes that aren't funny or situations that would probably feel more natural if we were Russian. It's possible that the translator gets better as things go on but that could just be that the style of this takes a lot of getting used to. I can't help feeling that if they'd only let an English writer at it they'd have something much better.
This is billed as the first in a series and Russia's answer to Harry Potter. I would have said it was the first 7 in a series and the only similarity with Harry Potter is in the Russian sales which apparently are phenomenal.
THIS ALIEN SHORE by C S Freidman
I hadn’t heard of C S Friedman. I wasn’t excited by the blurb, ‘ A cross between cyberpunk and Star Wars.’ But hell, it
was SF and it was sitting among a box full of fantasy so I picked it up.
I instantly warmed to her acknowledgement of Cordwainer Smith’s inspiration. Almost immediately I realised that a comparison with Star Wars was an insult to this book, a book with a complex and fascinating background and intriguing characters.
The first faster than light drive, used to establish colonies on every planet in reach, also worked irreparable genetic damage on anyone making the journey. The resulting people, called Hausman variants, hate the Earth which cut them off without a lifeline in fear of infection of the human gene pool. This is the basic background, peopled with aliens and monsters that are human, Guildsmen who are the only beings capable of piloting ships through the ainniq, at huge cost to their sanity, a vast computer web and a proliferation of interconnected lives.
Against this background, Jamisia, a young woman with biological brain-ware more valuable and extensive than would seem reasonable and a cast of intrusive characters in her head, is fleeing assassination and attempting to understand herself. Kio Masada, Gueran, is also attempting to understand something, a computer virus infiltrating the web.
It really would be pointless to try to explain more. The story is too rich and complex for reasonable synopsis. Go out and buy it immediately.
THIS VIRTUAL NIGHT (The Outworlds 2) by C S Freidman
For those not familiar with the author, C S Friedman was nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in
1988 and has published 13 novels of science fiction and fantasy. Her most well-known is probably her excellent
science-fantasy series, The Coldfire Trilogy (1991 to 1996).
THIS VIRTUAL NIGHT is the second in The Outworlds SF series. While billed as a sequel, I hadn’t read THIS ALIEN SHORE (the first in the series) and found it didn’t affect my reading. This book works perfectly well as a stand-alone, especially as the two main protagonists are new and not a carry-over from the first book.
The first colonists from Earth used the Hausman drive. Too late, they realised that it changed their genes irrevocably. Horrified, Earth abandoned the fledgling colonies. Some of them survived and built a new society, tolerant of all the physical and mental “Variants” caused by space travel and centred mainly around space stations called “outworlds”. When a different method of interstellar travel was discovered, some of the colonists had unique abilities necessary for piloting. Forming the Gueran Guild, they helped shift the balance of power and re-establish contact with Earth.
When a presumed suicide assault destroys the life-support on a major waystation, two unlikely allies are drawn into the investigation, and a plot that threatens all of humanity. All that is known about the dead is that they were playing a virtual reality game and at the time of their death they were receiving messages from an uninhabited sector of space.
Micah Bello is a game designer who flees an Earth corporation waystation, fearful he will be made the scapegoat for the incident. Ru Gaya is an explorer who undertakes high-risk missions for the Gueran guild, primarily re-establishing contact with colonists separated since the first abandonment. They both end up on a derelict station where two bands of survivors endlessly fight – each believing the other group are monsters. Realising something is manipulating the minds of the survivors, they doggedly follow a trail to uncover an enemy intent on collapsing the whole outworld civilisation. All the while they must be constantly on guard as they’re never sure who may be under the influence of their adversary.
This is a good fast-paced space opera. The story works well and the progress from one discovery to the next feels unforced and credible. The characters of Ru and Micah are likeable and their skills complement each other. However, with all the high-stakes action, I felt there wasn’t enough time to look much beyond the superficial level of their characters and the story would have benefited from a few more quiet interludes.
The worldbuilding was interesting, especially the concept of a society forced by circumstance to be more accepting and adapted to people with diverse physical and mental abilities. However, I found beyond a few mentions, this didn’t really appear or affect the narrative which I found a little disappointing. I assume that more of this was evident in the first book. The gradual uncovering of the details of the threat and the nature of the “big bad” are well-thought out. However, there is little direct contact, so there isn’t much room to explore the enemy’s viewpoint and justification, which is something I prefer in my antagonists.
I suspect how you view this book depends on what you want from a space opera. It’s easy to read and has a good flow. The plot and characters are entertaining and the societal set-up is unusual and appealing, though at least to me feels under-explored. Basically, it’s a space romp and on that level, I enjoyed it but felt a little more depth would have benefitted the book. It’s not the absolute stand-out memorable books that I found in her Coldfire series (and maybe that explains some of my disappointment) but is well-written nonetheless and a pleasurable quick read.
BLUE FRIDAY by Mike French
Most of us have played those games with friends where a situation is taken and the conversation follows the line ‘what
if’ and gets sillier and sillier as the night progresses. In the morning you cannot remember any of the details, only that
at the time, it was hilarious. Mike French has been playing those games but he does remember what happened. The
result is this book which can be best described as a surreal science fiction satire. While in INTRUSION Ken MacLeod
took a serious and depressing view of the consequences of the Nanny State, Mike French has gone for the bizarre.
At the present time there is an emphasis on a work-life balance urging employers not to overload their staff so that they have very little time for their families and social life. The EEC Working Hours Directive only regulates time in the workplace but doesn’t account for working from home. What if…. The law insists family time is sacrosanct and there is vigorous enforcement. That is the scenario postulated in BLUE FRIDAY.
Overtime is not just banned, it is illegal. At five o’clock all nine-to-five married couples must begin to make their way home (shift workers must adhere to their shift patterns). Charlie Heart is part of the resistance. At 5.00 precisely on the Friday before Christmas he closes down his work station and induces the surveillance network to think he is leaving the building. Instead, he is signing on to an illegal overtime network. (It is never clear what they do when working illegally; perhaps it is the thought that they are breaking taboos that is the lure). Unfortunately, Charlie is caught by two enforcement agents, Mr Stone and Mr Brittle, whose job it is to eject lingering staff from the building. They enjoy their job a bit too much. The intention is to tranquilise Charlie and put him in a taxi home; however also in the building is a Family Protection Officer, Trent, who discovers tabs of AvodaOne in Charlie’s possession. These pills cause a mental breakdown and produce an obsession for work in those that take them. When Charlie escapes from custody he is shot trying to get back into his office. Trent then finds himself replacing Charlie as head of the underground overtime network. Why or how this happens is not clear. It doesn’t really matter.
This is a skewed and cynical look at a future that has taken things to extremes. It is not one that I could conceive of actually coming about, whereas MacLeod’s version is all too plausible. Mike French was having fun while writing BLUE FRIDAY and he loads bizarre on surreal on bizarre. It is witty with the wry humour that only satire can impart and all readers will find some resonance in it. To try pulling apart the structure and point out the ways that this scenario would not work would be very ungallant. This is a book that should be taken for what it is, a comment of the idiocy of law makers. The only thing that can be done with a book like this is to go along for the ride and enjoy the experience.
THE NEMESIS LIST by R J Frith
Already established as a short-story writer, Frith won a 2009 competition aimed at discovering new talent: this book is
It tells the story of a boy taken from his family at age five to (unwillingly) take part in a secret and illegal project using drugs and mental conditioning to enhance its subjects’ mental abilities – “We’re going to make you clever” he is told. After eleven years the project is overrun by Government troops but he escapes, finding himself in possession of an enormous fund of knowledge which he hardly knows how to use; eidetic memory and a degree of telepathy, plus a burning desire for revenge. This much is recounted in a series of flashbacks, the main narrative being concerned with a period another five years hence when he has become a target for both a Government agency probably wanting to reproduce the experiments that created him and a rebel group wanting to use his powers for their own ends. With the help of an uncertain ally whose life he once saved, he escapes both, albeit perhaps only for the time being.
On the face of it then, a reasonably lively and exciting space-opera-science-fiction piece, with plenty of spaceships, space stations, guns and fighting. Look more closely however and you can start to see the joins – the main theme of an experimental child who grows into a disturbed young adult is far from original and in general one tends to feel one has heard it all before Fortunately, there are both enough action and enough originality to keep the reader interested in what will happen next.
Less fortunately, the book is not always that well-written, perhaps betraying the author’s limited experience; after all, it is his first full-length novel. The use of flash-backs has already been mentioned, but one quite important story element is effectively overlooked altogether. The storyline is confusing at times and there is a general impression that he has incorporated elements of explanation as and when the need arose instead of working the plot out in advance. Also there is a bit too much of people sitting around in rooms thinking about things or talking about what to do next, instead of getting on with it.
None of which is to say that this is any sense a bad book. It is well worth reading and holds the interest well and such parts as may seem derivative are drawn from the very best sources. As a new and up-and-coming author Frith will be certainly bear watching and the sequel this first book cries out for should be eagerly anticipated
GOOD OMENS by Neil Gaiman & Terry PratchettOriginally published in 1990, this tells of the arrival on Earth of the Antichrist in the form of a human baby who will grow to fulfil his part in bringing about the last war between the forces of Good and Evil, or Heaven and Hell if you prefer. The basis of the plot may at first sound familiar to anyone who remembers a certain film, but unfortunate incompetence on the part of the nuns charged with carrying out the substitution results in the baby being given to the wrong family - in other words, lost.
DARK UNIVERSE by Daniel F Galouye
The problem with classic science fiction is that it so often dates so very badly.
The greatest vision of the future can go desperately wrong when history takes a different turn. Nightmares of science become jokes when science decides that isn't how things are. What good is it to have a great futuristic novel when you need to look on it with nostalgia? This suffers from all of this and loses so much in the process. We have here a future where the 3rd world war between the great nuclear powers actually happened. A science that still believes evolution is accelerated by irradiation. Even more than this we have plot lines that have since become cliches.
This is the story. WW3 happened. People retreated to the deep bunkers (remember the coal mines of Dr Strangelove). In one of them something went wrong. The lights went out and people adapted to the dark. Some started to see in the infra-red, others lost any understanding of light. As "what if?" stories go, this is a good one but it carries to much baggage and one plot device that should be a surprise (the "monsters" that are taking people) is something I (at least) saw through much too soon.
Not really for the under-30's.
THE VESUVIUS CLUB - Graphic Edition by Mark Gatiss, Ian & Guy Bass
This is the comic book version of Mark Gatiss' period adventure novel.
The pictures are by Ian Bass and letters by Guy Bass (his name does not appear on the outer cover). The page count is complicated as the numbering starts on the fifth page of the comic and does not appear on every page. The count at the top includes all of the inside illustrated pages whether part of the story, fake advertisement, or additional illustration.
The plot is fairly simple in this version. Lucifer Box, artist and resident of 9 Downing Street, is a secret agent of the British Empire in the Edwardian Era. Here he investigates the death and/or disappearance of several leading vulcanologists (Volcanoes, not rubber) and strange events in Naples. The story also involves an orgy in a club, drugs, a plot to destroy a large part of Italy and ‘Purple Zombies’. There's no real subtlety, not many surprises, and the characters are paper thin.
It seems obvious that this was an attempt at a period ‘James Bond’ or ‘Avengers’ style spy thriller. The smart lines, the choreographed fight scenes, the immaculate costumes are all there. The problem is that it seems half-hearted in so much of what it does. There are names from obvious puns (Tom Bowler, Bella Pok) but only a couple of them. There's a deliberate attempt to put the book in a period (there's a ‘cover’ dated May 1939) but there are illustrations that wouldn't have passed a censor until the 1990s and subject matter that wouldn't have been acceptable until at least the 1970s. And the only way you know the zombies are purple is because it says so (only the cover is in colour).
This book is not particularly smart or funny. It doesn't even have that odd sense of humour from THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (Gatiss was one of the writers/creators). As a pulp fiction style comic book it's OK but nothing more.
1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE by Mary Gentle
Told from the viewpoint of Valentin Rochefort, swordsman and spy, this is in fact little more than a historical novel, set
in the opening decades of the seventeenth century. Following his unwilling involvement in the assassination of King
Henri IV of France in 1610, Rochefort flees to England where he is caught up in a series of events which will shape the
destiny of the world for centuries to come. As the story develops he is gradually revealed as a complex and flawed
character, forced into a role requiring him to assess his place in the world and his own part in influencing its history. He
emerges as a man of principle, honest and true according to his own lights.
Like Mary Gentle’s previous ASH, her work here reflects her fascination with, and exhaustive knowledge of, historical times. No detail of dress, maimers, or, most especially, fighting is overlooked and this attention to the minutiae of life conveys a very convincing authenticity so that the reader is easily carried away into a world of the imagination. However, although th ere is a fair amount of action the book as a whole is rather long, drawn out at times to the point of becoming somewhat tedious.
The historical novel is overlaid with a veneer of science fantasy personified by one Doctor Robert Fludd who has learned how to predict the future by mathematical calculation. Early in the book his power is amply demonstrated and it becomes apparent that he is seeking to shape a future in which the most undesirable of his predictions can be averted. However, his plans are brought to naught by individuals - chiefly Rochefort - who, having been made aware of his calculated predictions, exert what freedom of choice is allowed to them in ways which invalidate those calculations. Thus the underlying theme becomes an illustration of the fundamental argument between destiny and free will. At the same time the reader is left to work out whether the book has been written in a ‘today’ which is not our own or in our own ‘today’ which has been changed from what might have been were it not for Fludd's involvement. In fact, publishers Gollancz would have us take this as a novel of alternate history.
On whatever basis it is to be judged, this can only be described as an impressive piece of work, well written and impressively researched. It will however appeal more to readers of fantasy in general and sword-and-sorcery in particular than to SF enthusiasts.
ASH A SECRET HISTORY by Mary Gentle
I have always liked this author's work, although some of her books have been a bit strange, to say the least. She has
taken a new direction several times and here she has surpassed herself to produce something entirely new and
There are two stories in this book. Nominally, the main one is that of Ash, who lived her brief life as a leader of mercenary soldiers in the second half of the fifteenth century. As her story unfolds it looks as though a supernatural element is creeping in, but this effect is subsequently found to arise from an unknown mediaeval technology. One suspects that it might even be extraterrestrial, but when the truth is revealed it is something entirely different, possibly worse, and the book is still only half way through.
The second story supplements this by including between the chapters correspondence exchanged between author and publisher as the writing of the book progresses. The author draws on previous versions of Ash's life, supplemented by translations of hitherto undiscovered manuscripts and illuminated by archaeological research. While this goes on, however, historical records are changing before his eyes and it becomes apparent that the history in which Ash lived may not be our history. In fact, it may be that the past itself has somehow been changed, with fragments of the ‘'lost" past lingering on or reappearing in our present. Even his book, the book we are reading, becomes affected so that only this one copy survives. It has become part of its own story.
Although the major part of the book, the story of Ash, appears to be Fantasy it would be wrong to dismiss the whole as such. The real story is actually the modern one, and that is very much Science Fiction. And what a story it turns out to be!
The only criticism I could make of ASH would be its inordinate length, as the writer displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of mediaeval dress, weaponry, warfare and way of life generally. This is highly instructive, and together with one feature I particularly liked - that instead of a stilted reproduction of mediaeval speech the characters' words are "translated” into twentieth century idiom complete with four-letter words - gives an amazingly authentic atmosphere, but the sheer amount of detail does slow up the narrative in places and some of the early parts of the book can be rather slow going. However, in the later chapters the pace picks up as the two stories, one Fantasy and the other Science Fiction, mesh to produce a staggering climax as alternate histories collapse together to produce one present day.
If you only buy one more book this year, make it this one.
CARTOMANCY by Mary Gentle
From time immemorial, people have had a desire to know what the future holds for them Cartomancy is divination
using maps. Here, the idea of cartomancy is used as a framing device for a collection of stories published between
1983 and 2004. The title story, originally published as a whole in 1991, is split into two with an introduction to the
magical map that has been painted on the walls of a room in the Citadel of Virtue and a return to it in the final few
pages of the volume. It is viewed by Elthyriel, the Knight-Patriarch of the Order of Virtue and the other stories
represent what he sees. Unfortunately, this framing device does not enhance the volume, mainly because of the
diversity of the other stories and the fact that there is nothing within them to link back to the idea ol cartomancy A high
proportion of the stories involve physical conflict of some kind and many of Gentle's fighters are women. Several have
links to her other works. "The Logistics of Carthage", for instance, is set in the same alternative history as ASH, and is a
precursor by a decade or so for the novel. "The Road to Jerusalem" also has its roots in an alternative history.
Whereas "The Logistics of Carthage" deals with a Europe where the country of Burgundy did not disappear from the
maps in the 1477, "What God Abandoned" is another story that plays with history.
The military theme is continued in "Orc's Drift" (written with Dean Wayland and the only collaboration here). This story is pure fun. The desert outpost is occupied by orcs and the troops are bored. Then a fairy turns up "Anukazi's Daughter" and "A Shadow Under the Sea" are both set in the same fantasy world. Both feature betrayals and both have strong, female warriors as principal characters. "A Sun In The Attic" could also be regarded as fantasy but of a much gentler kind, with the emphasis on politics rather than warfare, but like so much of Mary Gentle's work, there is room for doubt. It could be science fiction Research into the applications of lenses that could lead to revelations best left uncovered and the question is a choice between the greater good of the people and scientific development.
"The Pits Beneath the World" is pure science fiction using the theme of a misunderstanding between ours and the alien's cultures to good effect.
These and the other stories in this volume are well crafted and are a fair representation of Mary Gentle's work. Most have female lead characters who are slightly out of kilter with the rest of their society and most of these women are willing to actually light, sometimes with actual swords. They are all strongly motivated. Don't expect softness or sentimentality from this writer.
ILARIO: THE LION'S EYE by Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle has a fondness for very long books. In the cases of ASH and 1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE there was
enough substance to sustain the length. ILARIO: THE LION'S EYE doesn’t.
This book is set in the same skewed universe as ASH. In this fifteenth century, Carthage is still a considerable power though it lies under the Penitence. The city is permanently dark. No-one knows why except that it is a curse in more ways than one. The city of Rome is referred to as The Empty Chair because there is currently no Pope. That is also believed cursed, as anyone unlucky enough to be elected to the papacy dies shortly afterwards. The cardinals gave up trying to elect a new Pope several centuries earlier as they do not want to be victim of the curse. The Egyptian Pharaohonic dynasty continues but in exile based in Constantinople. In Iberia, modern Spain, Taraconensis is a seat of power.
Ilario is a true hermaphrodite having fully functional male and female parts.
Abandoned at birth, Ilario was raised by foster parents then sold to the king as the court freak. Ilario’s ambition is to be a painter and after being given his freedom, flees to Carthage after his true mother tries to kill him. There he falls prey to an opportunist who sells him as a slave. Fortunately, Ilario is sold to an Egyptian eunuch collecting books for his Pharaoh-Queen and needs a scribe. The relationship that develops between Rekhmire’ and Ilario is more that of friendship than master and slave. Due to the interference of Ilario’s mother, Rosamunde, they have to leave Carthage and go to Rome where Ilario is apprenticed to a master painter to learn the skills of New Art. After the painter’s death, Ilario and Rekhmire’ go on to Venice. Ilario is now being hunted by both the Carthaginians and his mother’s husband. Ilario’s true father is a successful Iberian general, Honorius who is very happy to discover the existence of a son-daughter. Ilario, however, has just discovered that he is pregnant.
During the rest of the novel, Ilario escapes various assassination attempts, marries twice – once as groom, once as bride, visits the Egyptian court in exile and meets some lost Chinese seamen. Ilario doesn’t come across as a hermaphrodite. The ambiguity of dual sexuality is not convincing, yet the depiction of Ilario as a painter is. He is constantly sketching and has the same itchy fingers that a writer has when the ideas are flowing.
The entire story takes place over a year and although there is a lot crammed into this as a time period, the overall effect of the narrative is lassitude with bursts of action.
There is too much of the day to day existence such as the problems of giving Ilario’s daughter her feeds.
Overall, while this is a well written book, internally consistent and well researched, it is far too long and could have been improved by judicial pruning
WHITE CROW by Mary Gentle
This is good value for money. Between the covers are three short stories and three novels. The connection is the world
in which they are set. Though the publisher has labelled the book fantasy, Gentle herself claims they are science
fiction but that it is the science that is different from ours. In the 17th century there was a belief in Hermetic science
which said that the world worked on magical patterns and resonances, but predictably, scientifically.
Valentine White Crow is a Scholar-Soldier and a member of the Invisible College. She first appears in “Beggars in Satin”, when the Miracle Garden being constructed by Lord Architect Casaubon keeps becoming corrupted - the patterns it is based on are twisted and discordant. Casaubon is a gross figure - immensely fat and slovenly but likeable and accompanies Valentine in the other parts of this volume. In “The Knot Garden” the pattern opens a way into another dimension from which emerge gods on Earth, setting the scene for RATS AND GARGOYLES. The third of the stories, “Black Motley” , introduces the other element for RATS AND GARGOYLES, the man-sized intelligent rats that actually run the country. The balance between humans, rats and gods is being upset by one of the gods intent 011 undoing the world.
LEFT TO HIS OWN DEVICES brings the scientific system into the near future. Hermetic science is still extant but has been overtaken by computer technology. Valentine’s magic is in writing software and Casaubon constructs hypermedia architecture - modern equivalents of their old roles. Set in a closed London - too many asylum seekers so no-one can come in - and with civil war in Germany, the system they have created together is certain to upset the balance. It is interesting here, to look for the equivalents in term of characters between this and RATS AND GARGOYLES but here all the rats are human.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF DESIRE is back in the London of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, except that the queen, Carola, and General Olivia exist together in disharmony. Olivia wants to build a temple but it keeps falling down and expects Casaubon to solve the problem.
To try and put the complicated contexts underlying these novels and stories into a few words is impossible. Instead, read them for yourself. They are clever, brilliantly characterised but need the reader to concentrate and think about what is going on. This volume is not a holiday read for the beach. It deserves better than that and to get the best out of it, it really needs to be read twice. Be prepared to spend time and there is great satisfaction to be had.
DEVIL’S ROAD by Gary Gibson
The Devil’s Run is an annual road race that circumnavigates the post-apocalyptic ruins of Teijouan Island, whose
devastated cities teem with Kaiju (giant monsters à la Godzilla). The Kaiju have infested the now abandoned island
from a rift, opened during weapons testing, to the space-time continuum. The central character, Dutch McGuire has
faced the trials of the race more times than anyone else but she has never won. Dutch imprisoned for life, is able to
escape and is hired to compete in the Devil’s Run once again, by a shadowy underworld gang whose real intentions
are only revealed later in the story. Couple this difficult situation with the fact that an old adversary, learning of her
escape, is determined to have Dutch killed, only complicates Dutch’s race when her ultimate objective is to get her first
race win. Never mind the various types of giant monsters roaming the island that see the racers as a nice snack.
The plot is more complex than the slimness of the volume would suggest. The story is thrill-a-minute, with plot twists, reveals and action that does not stop. This is all achieved in a mere 128 pages by Gary Gibson due to his sparse descriptive style; nothing is lost to the reader and the scenes play out in your mind gloriously from a few lines. I have previously read the first couple of his Shoal series, which were written nearly 15 years ago, and his style does feel different in this book. It feels very efficient and there is not a word wasted, I am sure that another writer may have written another 40 pages without any worthwhile addition to the story.
I am soon to read EXTINCTION GAME written 6 years ago and it’ll be interesting to see how that book feels in comparison. DEVIL’S ROAD is littered with cultural references which I will not spoil by listing here, needless to say there will be more than a few times where you will nod to yourself for finding them.
For me the combination of car racing, monsters and intrigue was more than enough to interest me in buying the book. I very much enjoyed the complex story told with an efficient prose style that fair clips along. A most satisfying quick read. IM DEVIL’S ROAD was released in March 2020, by Newcon Press. Produced to the usual Newcon high standards, they have some limited edition signed hardbacks available still. Paperback and kindle editions are also available from Newcon and usual outlets.
EXTINCTION GAME by Gary Gibson
Jerry Beche should be dead. Instead, he’s rescued from a desolate Earth where he was the last man alive. He’s then
trained for the toughest conditions imaginable and placed with a crack team of specialists on an isolated island. Every
one of them is a survivor, as each has withstood the violent ending of their own alternative Earth. Their new
specialism? To retrieve weapons and data in missions to other apocalyptic versions of our world. But why?
EXTINCTION GAME is another excellent book from an outstanding novelist who is, in my opinion, fast becoming one of the great modern British writers of Science Fiction. I fully agree with the jacket quote from The Guardian that he is to be considered alongside the leading triumvirate of British hard SF writers: Alistair Reynolds, Peter F Hamilton and Neal Asher. All of whom are authors that I really enjoy reading.
To me EXTINCTION GAME is a masterful blend of two SF sub-genres, Post Armageddon and Alternative Reality. Written as a murder mystery and not Space Opera, it is very different from his excellent Shoal Sequence trilogy and its spin-off MARAUDER. There is nothing ‘flashy’ about the storyline just solid high class writing which leave the reader quietly satisfied and eager for the next book by this author.
EXTINCTION GAME is written from the point of view of the main character which is a departure from the Shoal Sequence in which he wove several story lines into a rich tapestry. This was not needed as it was basically one person’s story and as such worked very well indeed. That said, the ‘hero’ Jerry Beche, was ably supported by a reasonable number of other characters to provide context to the tale. In doing so Gary Gibson wisely only used one ‘flash back’ in the narrative and this was very appropriate in providing background at an apposite moment. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy flash backs as long as they are not overdone and are fitting to help the reader understand and enjoy the storyline.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading EXTINCTION GAME, look forward to rereading it and can wholeheartedly recommend it to others.
FINAL DAYS by Gary Gibson
It is no exaggeration to say that British writers such as Reynolds, Hamilton, Asher and Banks are coming to lead the
world in the production of far-future space fiction and with his latest book Gary Gibson continues his bid to stake his
place in this illustrious company.
He has set it in 2235 when, through the advent of wormhole technology, more than a dozen interstellar colonies have been linked to Earth. Most writers employing this kind of scenario either overlook or choose to ignore the fact that, according to the rules of Minkowski Spacetime, two points separated in space by, say, ten light-years are also separated in time by ten years. Gibson however has exploited this principle to enable the wormholes to be used for time-travel into the future; however, the idea that two-way travel will be possible is rather less plausible. Be that as it may, he has here employed the concept in its own terms to good effect in this story.
As well as the colonisation effort, explorations in space have uncovered a huge network of wormholes left by some other intelligent race or races and some investigation has taken place. A site one hundred trillion years in the future has been visited and some future technology recovered. However, it has been discovered that both the Earth and the Moon-based terminal of the local wormhole network will be totally destroyed within ten years. Both things may be connected, but how? And will it be possible to prevent or reverse this course of events?
Leaving aside these exciting and dramatic aspects, the book is generally well-written and provides a convincing and fascinating portrayal of life in a world filled with futuristic communications, transport and weapons. Less happily, the story is told in alternating segments from the point of view of at least four leading characters, one of whom is present in two versions of himself including one from ten years in the future. Keeping track of them all, seeing how they interact and anticipating how they will continue doing so, is not always easy. Each individual story comes to some kind of conclusion by the end of the book, but which of those conclusions will best serve the interests of humanity as a whole remains unclear.
Fortunately, author Gibson is already hard at work on the necessary sequel and hopefully all will be explained. In the meantime, this first part of the story can be recommended as well worth reading.
MARAUDER by Gary GibsonMARAUDER is a worthy sequel to Gary Gibson's brilliant Shoal trilogy (STEALING LIGHT, NOVA WAR and EMPIRE OF LIGHT) being set approximately two hundred years after its conclusion. As in the Shoal trilogy the lead character is a strong feisty woman spacecraft pilot, Megan Jacinth, who displays many of the characteristics so strongly exhibited by Gibson's previous heroine, Dakota Merrick. As in his previous novels there is a strong cast of 'supporting' characters whose actions display both the best and worst of human nature all bound up in a smoothly depicted and gripping tale.
STEALING LIGHT /NOVA WAR The first and second books of The Shoal Sequence by Gary Gibson
The original intention was that I would deal only with the second of these - something I would normally try to avoid
doing. In fact, by the time I had got through eighty pages or so I had come to realise two things: that events had
already happened that I wanted to know about, and that the first book would be well worth reading. So I took steps to
get hold of it and started from the beginning.
The “Shoal” is an aquatic race, seemingly the only one in this arm of the Milky Way in possession of ftl technology which enables them to control the activities of humans and various other so-called client races. However, a predecessor race, the Magi, have left derelict starships scattered about and two humans come into possession of one of these and learn that the Shoal did not actually invent their advanced technology for themselves - they have in fact been engaged in a millenia-long war with another ftl-capable alien race calling themselves The Emissaries of God. Both are aware that their ftl technology can be used to destroy any star in a nova explosion and in the second book hostilities escalate with both sides demonstrating this capability. It is left to our two humans to initiate the settingup of a peacekeeping force which will use the technology left behind by the Magi to bring things under control and prevent the eradication of life in the Milky Way.
The foregoing few words can scarcely begin to convey the intricacies of a story, complex and full of incident, spread through eight hundred-plus pages.
Unfortunately, the first book begins in a very piecemeal fashion with successive chapters dodging about in both place and time, leaving the reader (me, anyway) quite confused as to what actually happened when and to whom. It does not always add up and at least twice I had to turn back to try to find how it was that some character was actually not dead after all. About halfway through, the story takes on a more linear narrative, although the author still cannot resist the occasional flashback. The inventiveness and excitement never let up as the elaborations of the plot continue to unfold.
Gibson is not quite a new writer, these being respectively his third and fourth published books. On this evidence he is more than able to stand comparison with the leading names in contemporary British SF writing. There may be the odd occasion when he has followed other people’s ideas, but his sources are always the very best and he brings more than enough of his own originality to make up for it.
I shall look forward to the next book in this series, which I hope will bring it to a triumphant conclusion. In the meantime, these are highly recommended.
FEAR Issue #38 edited by John Gilbert
After a hiatus of 27 years John Gilbert has relaunched his horror magazine as a bi-monthly, with the first (called Issue
37) out in August 2016. It's a good-looking 50-page glossy with stories from Ramsey Campbell and Johnny Mains &
Simon Bestwick, interviews with Campbell, Mains, Gary McMahon, Jonathan Maberry and artist Jim Pitts. There's a
tribute to film director Robin Hardy, lots of film news and some reviews of books and films.
The whole thing is well printed and published with plenty of pictures (Ramsey Campbell smiles out from the front cover), very professional and a snip at £3.99. For my taste there's rather too much film and interview material, not enough fiction. The stories are well worth reading and the interviews are well conducted. John Gilbert is in the process of appointing a fiction editor and intends to have a higher proportion of fiction in future issues. Recommended.
THE SYNAPSE SEQUENCE by Daniel Godfrey
Whilst I was aware that a lot of good things were being said about Daniel Godfrey’s work. I hadn’t read any of his books
before. Based on reading THE SYNAPSE SEQUENCE I will definitely be looking for his other books. For a relatively
short book it packs in a lot of ideas and action, all set in a near-future UK which feels depressingly likely. Jobs are
being increasingly performed by bots and managed by AI’s, with fewer and fewer jobs available to humans. Most
people subsist on a basic Universal Income (UI) and there is a growing resentment that is moving up the class ladder.
The synapse sequencer of the title is a machine which allows someone to directly experience the memories of another
person. At the start of the book it is still in the early development stages but has a number of potentially very lucrative
uses. Anna Glover is an ex-accident investigator, now virtually unemployable after her conclusions about an aircraft
crash were used as justification to start an unpopular and nasty war in Tanzania. She is now testing the synapse
sequencer’s potential to investigate crime based on directly accessing the memories of witnesses. Much criminal
investigation is now computerised and heavily reliant on data from closed circuit cameras, electronic purchases and
social media. Prioritisation of which crimes to investigate is decided by algorithms supposedly based on the likelihood
of success versus the resources needed but clearly also considers political factors such as notoriety and the public’s
interest in a case.
When the daughter of a high-profile couple is kidnapped, Anna (and the company) are approached by a PI as the only potential witness is her foster brother, who has been badly beaten and is now in a coma. Despite the girl’s high status, the police investigation has been given a low priority. As Anna delves into the young man (N’Golo’s) memories she starts to uncover evidence that this is not just a simple ransom kidnapping. It has ramifications linked to the political landscape and the conflicts over how much should machines be allowed to watch and control society, and she faces increasing obstacles and dangers as she progresses. As I said at the beginning, there is a lot packed into this book. The setting of the story feels very credible and convincing and shows a lot of thought. Anna, the main protagonist, is interesting as someone who has to make some morally dubious choices due to her circumstances. At times the book reminds me of some of Philip K Dick’s themes, considering things such as how much can one trust the memories of one person and how much do Anna’s own assumptions and prejudices affect her analysis and conclusions. It also has some of the feel of Michael Crichton’s work; combining SF ideas with exciting action to appeal to a broader audience. In short, it works really well as a tense, complex thriller and I can see it also being enjoyed by readers outside the SF field.
THE NECKLACE OF THE GODS by Alison Goodman
This young adult fantasy is the second by the author set in a Chinese Empire-type world. The first book, THE TWO
PEARLS OF WISDOM, describes how a young girl, Eona, becomes a Dragoneye, able to manipulate wind and water
to nurture and protect the land. As females are not allowed to be Dragoneyes, Eona has to masquerades as a boy,
In THE NECKLACE OF THE GODS Eon’s gender has been revealed and as the Lady Eona, the first female Dragoneye in hundreds of years, she is a major player in a counter rebellion against the usurper High Lord Sethon. Full of well defined characters the book describes how, along with fellow rebels Ryko and Lady Dela and others, she finds Kygo, the young Pearl Emperor. As his forces are greatly outnumbered he needs Eona's powers to help him recover his throne. Unfortunately for him, Eona has little idea of how to use her powers requiring tuition from the treacherous Lord Ido (the only other surviving Dragoneye). Her attempts to use her power, although well intentioned, often have disastrous consequences for others. This results in those whom she is trying to help doubting her motivation. As a further complication she is attracted to both the Emperor and Ido. The final battle is well described with some interesting twists and turns.
Although this is a second book in a series the characters and the situation are well enough described so someone who has not read THE TWO PEARLS OF WISDOM can easily follow the story. It is full of action, passion, evil and treachery including some from an unexpected source. It is well written although in a somewhat ‘soft focus’ style. This is probably because it is aimed at the young adult market.
It should be noted that these both books have alternate titles. THE NECKLACE OF THE GODS also being published as EONA: THE LAST DRAGONEYE and THE TWO PEARLS OF WISDOM as EON: RISE OF THE DRAGONEYE
JUMPER by Steven Gould
I first read this back in 1992 when it was published in the USA. I loved it and could not understand why a British
publisher didn’t pick up the rights. But Andromeda imported several hundred copies and I never heard anyone
expressing disappointment with it. It was Steven Gould’s first novel and he went on to produce several fine novels.
Now it finally gets a British edition due entirely to the release of the new movie JUMPER, based on this book. But be warned – the movie is only ‘based’ on this novel. The movie is so different that a movie novelisation has now been released as well. Also written by Steven Gould, it’s called JUMPER: GRIFFIN’S STORY and hopefully will be reviewed next month. Is this a first – the original author also writing the movie novelisation? I can’t think of a single instance of this happening before.
The novel opens with David Rice, a teenager, about to be beaten with the buckle end of a belt by his abusive, drunken father. He suddenly finds himself in his favourite place, the local library, and realises he has ‘jumped’. When he is about to be gang-raped by a group of men, the same thing happens – back to the library, the place he has escaped to since his mother walked out on his father and him many years before..
Leaving his father and deciding to make his own way in life, David discovers the joys and perils of teleportation.
It’s been many years since teleportation was a reasonably common theme in SF but it’s been very scarce in recent years. Here we have a first-class novel with good characterisation, wellpaced action and a wonderful noir quality. There’s a lovely tribute in there when, after not meeting any other ‘jumpers’, he realises that his only blueprint for his position is remembering when he read Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION. That novel, of course, is *the* classic novel of teleportation.
JUMPER is far and away better than any other book in that genre. Read it and enjoy!
JUMPER: GRIFFIN’S STORY by Steven Gould
This novelisation of the JUMPER movie has little to do with JUMPER itself as far as characters and plot are
concerned. Only the idea of teleportation remains. Whoever decided to buy the rights of the original novel obviously
simply wanted to do a movie on teleportation.
Having purchased the rights, the first problem was how to get over the whole idea of teleportation with its advantages and disadvantages, to the general non-SF reading public within the first section of the movie. This is done by having young Griffin being taught how to ‘jump’ (or teleport) by his parents. Are there other teleports? Why do they appear to be the only ones? None of this is explained and strangely, I found this of little importance having already read JUMPER itself..
It reads like a slow juvenile through this first section but when the real story kicks in, the novel reads much like JUMPER itself – fast and quite dark., and certainly not like a juvenile.
JUMPER had a direct sequel, REFLEX, that was published in 2004.
GRIFFIN’S STORY reads like a third book in a trilogy telling the story of a spinoff character, though Griffin does not appear in the other two books. Having Steven Gould himself to write this novelisation certainly helps to connect this to the other two books and it is sufficiently different to make it appear like a third book in a series and not to be a ‘distorted’ version of JUMPER itself.
It’s impossible to describe the rest of this novel without spoiling the plot and I’m certainly not going to do that. There are too many ‘spoilers’ in the blurb on the back cover as it is. If you buy this book, and I strongly suggest it’s well worth reading, please try to avoid reading the blurb.
THE GEARS OF MADNESS by Iain Grant
Steampunk is a strange phenomenon. It is a combination of nostalgia and alternative science. While some exponents
of the sub-genre want to take science back to the Victorian Era, some use it as a jumping off place for another
direction of development. A few turn it into a genuine alternative history along with a different physics. Iain Grant is
one of the latter.
This collection of seven stories started life as a series of adventures only available on the internet. This book brings them all together to form an ongoing narrative. The sub-title is “The Collected Sedgewick Papers”. This is not quite an accurate description even though there are links between them. Many, though not all, are purported to be from the memoires of Mr J Cadwallander and mostly concern the situations he was dragged into by Professor Erskine Sedgewick at the start of the twentieth century. There is enough in the basic relationship between the two men to wonder if the initial inspiration was Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
In this world, as is consistent with some of the beliefs of Victorian natural philosophers, the space between planets is not a vacuum but stratified layers of aether. To get between the layers there are a series of locks through which ships can travel. The first story in the book, set in 1902 is “The Angels of the Abyss”. When something strange seems to have occurred in one of these space-locks, Sedgewick inveigles himself and Cadwallander onto the expedition to find out what is going on. They find that the cylindrical structure has been invaded by alien beings which manifest as angels but are deadly to whoever touches them. It is during the events here that Cadwallander loses an arm, which is replaced later by a very efficient mechanical one.
“The Pearl of Tharsis” set a year later introduces the adventuress, Mina Saxena, who has a place in several other of these stories. Sedgewick and Cadwallander are on Mars when a sandstorm downs their flying machine. They and the passengers and pilot take shelter in a labyrinth of caves. Mina has suffered the same fate, but sees an opportunity to hold the professor to ransom. Music, though lures them deeper into the caverns where they encounter Chioa Khan (an alias of Aleister Crowley). Here a god-like being has summoned people by supernatural means to a perpetual party where no debauchery is forbidden.
Mina tells the next story. In “The Well of Shambala” she has attached herself to a British expeditionary force in Tibet, which sets out to investigate a temple in the mountains. They have a limited time as by a certain date, the artillery on a space platform will shell the Russian forces in the area. What they find is literally, out of this world.
“The Bridge to Lemuria” uses several meanings of the word bridge in its execution. There is an actual bridge across the North Sea that is being built to link Britain with Belgium. It is almost complete when a murder sends Sedgewick to Yarmouth to investigate Edward Klein, the architect of the project. Where the two halves join in the centre he has constructed an arch of chthonic design. The finished construction is intended, not just as a bridge between countries, but between eldritch worlds. It is worth noting that Mina Saxena is initially accused of the murder that sets the events in train.
At first “The Shadow Under London” seems unconnected with the rest of the stories other than the narrator, Inspector Wilmarth who was the arresting officer in “The Bridge to Lemuria”. He is called in when his cousin is accused of the murder of a doctor working in the tunnels that will become a deep underground railway. The only connection with Sedgewick is that the nurse working there is his niece. Like several other stories in this collection the resolution involves eldritch gods.
“The Herald of the Ancients” and the title story, “The Gears of Madness”, are actually two parts of the same, longer story but written separately due to the original format. They bring together a number of characters from other stories, including Mina Saxena and Chioa Khan and rearrange the alliances seen earlier. It is a tale of gods and aliens.
While these stories belong to the steampunk genre, they also have a Lovecraftian influence as each contains monsters or monstrous beings masquerading as gods. Grant has obviously had a lot of fun creating this world and playing with history and historical characters. While not overtly humorous, the breakneck pace makes them highly enjoyable.
TELL NO LIES by John Grant
Story-tellers are good at lies. It is their stock in trade. A good story-teller is able to be convincing while being a master
of misdirection. The reader is sucked in to the power of the tale before realising that everything is not how they
expected it to be. In some cases this leads to a “groan effect” as a twist is revealed that, although unexpected is
provided without the clues that on looking back were present. A subtle bard leaves the reader with a feeling of
satisfaction. John Grant belongs to the latter school. Thus it is often difficult to discuss the themes and tropes within his
stories without the game away. From this selection of his work it is clear that he is a clever writer. These twelve stories,
from a period of ten years from 2004, provide a good showcase for his skill.
A common factor with many of these stories is the first person narrator. In “Q” the narrator is Cello, the Deputy Director of the CIA. She is in post because the president and her boss have been killed in a “terrorist” attack. That background is just there to put her in the right place for the rest of the story. Part of that is to examine a project her predecessor was involved with; the other part is philosophical concerning the nature of God. It is a lot to unpick in a short story and a reader might well be frustrated by all the things left unsaid.
There is scope here to build the background and make a longer story with more pace. As it stands, it is in stasis.
“Baited Breath” is a total contrast and full of humour. Again there is a first person narrator but the voice is very different. He and his wife, Natalie, discover that they have an infestation of dragons. These are small, mouse-sized dragons but they do breathe fire and they leave fluorescent droppings about the place. They have exactly the same problem as if they were mice – how to get rid of them.
Artists and poets use “found” objects in their work. A glimpse of the unusual can spark off ideas in a story-teller’s mind. “Two-Stroke Toilets” is an example that has generated a science fiction, time-slip story. When the narrator and his wife come to live in a small English village they discover that it has a gateway to the past. Although the narration is straightforward it generates;9 other issues, suggesting that the nature of time is more complex than most think.
Even Grant’s seemingly frivolous stories have a serious vein running through them which is not always apparent until the end is reached. Children have wild imaginations and the ability to invent imaginary situations which they enter in a way that becomes alien to most adults. “Commander Ginfalcio Beeswax And The Menace From Deneb” is one of these scenarios in which young Harold believes implicitly and the adults humour him – up to a point. A well- crafted story has a turning point at which all our preconceptions change. It may come at any point in the story and in the best ones, it sneaks up on us without us realising it. Grant does it here, and in many of the others included in this volume.
This volume ends with tongue-in-cheek humour. All the title character of “Benjy’s Birthday” birthday wants for his thirteenth, is a universe – the latest must-have for all the kids on the block.
Summing up, Grant likes to use the first person as he can play with the idea of the unreliable witness. It is easier to surprise the reader if the narrator is discovering things at the same time giving the stories a subtlety that using third person might not have. Many contain an element of the supernatural but the concepts are not too wild for the non- genre reader to appreciate. Not all the stories here will suit all tastes as in some Grant has a tendency to philosophise slowing down the pace with exposition. A volume worth dipping into.
PARASITE by Mira Grant
After a horrific car accident Sally Mitchell wakes up remembering nothing of who she was. Lucky to be alive, she has
only survived because her Dad is high up on the SymboGen company ladder and arranged for her to have an
Intestinal Bodyguard inserted before the accident; a tapeworm that enhances the human immune system and literally
helped to save her life, but at the same time wiped away her old, previously spoilt personality. This has left her as a
SymboGen guinea pig for six years, plagued by therapists and scientists prodding and poking her.
She's just starting to rebuild her life, gets on with her sister Joyce and has a cute boyfriend Nathan, who she loves. But just as she's coming to terms with her new life, people are starting to behave strangely. In the mall with her sister she spots a number of people randomly swarm towards each other with blank faces, victims of the apparent 'sleeping sickness'. And her parents seem to know something about this.
With all of that going on, and the stress of the investigations as well as relearning how to speak, read and react in a so called 'normal' way, Sally, now Sal, is having a hard time adjusting.
It's refreshing that in all of Mira/Seanan McGuire's books the regular protagonists reflect the multicultural and diverse world we live in.
Mostly written in the first person, we experience the events through Sal's eyes, however, chapters are interspersed with medical texts and journals mapping the history of the tapeworm and the scientists involved. There's a shady government/conspiracy theory vibe to the novel and the science feels incredibly accurate and believable suggesting a thorough amount of research.
There are plenty of surprises throughout the novel and the writing is especially entertaining, the science made accessible to the reader. All in all a brilliant start to a brand new trilogy and one that has been nominated for a Hugo. If it wins, it will be well deserved. Simply a brilliant book.
INCOMPETENCE by Rob Grant
Rob Grant is, of course, best known for his work with Doug Naylor on RED DWARF. They have written for both the TV
and book markets, but he has also written several books on his own, including a RED DWARF book, and a couple of
science fiction novels entitled COLONY and COLONY 11.
The basic premise of INCOMPETENCE is that the EU have issued a directive that makes it illegal for anyone to be sacked from their job for incompetence. In the middle of all the chaos this causes, one detective has to solve a series of murders committed by a chillingly competent serial murderer.
Along the way he has to deal with such occurrences as planes landing at the wrong airport, hotel rooms with no bed, and shoes made out of vegetables, as leather is rather scarce. He meets many interesting characters, including a police officer with an extreme anger management problem, a male octogenarian bunny girl, and a woman whose husband is hiding from the authorities, as he has been declared officially dead, and no matter how many times he has tried to prove that he is alive it has done no good.
When the story begins, our hero, Harry Salt, is on his way to meet a friend and colleague by the name of Dick Klingferm. When he gets to where he is supposed to meet him, he discovers that what looks like a freak accident has occurred. One of the neo-classical external glass elevators crashed through the roof and then, as all things that go up must do, it came down again. There were seven people in the lift, including Klingferm.
When Harry goes to look at one of the other lifts, he discovers that although the building has seventeen floors, there are thirty-three buttons.
Normally, buttons eighteen to thirty-three would not be wired up. But upon examination of the elevator cars, the thirty-third floor has been wired up to try and go to a non-existent thirty-third floor, thus causing the crash. This, of course, looks like perfectly ordinary human incompetence, some repair work done badly by a clumsy repairman. Harry knows that it is murder, however, and realises that he will have a very hard time proving that it is murder.
This book is very clever and extremely funny, but then again you wouldn't expect any less from a man who is half of the team who brought you RED DWARF. It gets four-and-a-half out of five, it would have got full marks were there a few more laugh-out-loud moments as opposed to grinning maniacally moments.
One of the things I especially liked was that despite being a humorous detective-novel-come-near-future-science- fiction it is realistic in the sense that the book is not entirely full of things going hilariously wrong. As a contrast tilings sometimes go well for Harry, as when the woman with the aforementioned officially dead husband takes him in and gives him aid and succour in the shape of a bowl of soup and some fairly miraculous herbal poultices to help heal the many scrapes and bruises he has picked up by this point in the narrative.
Another scene that particularly stuck in my mind was when he tries to catch a train from a station that unfortunately, trains don't stop at. Ever. And so he performs a James Bond-style leap between two carriages, so he can hold on to them. Now, if James Bond performed this stunt he would succeed with only a couple of smudges of dirt and possibly a slight amount of hair mussing. However, in this book the sheer difficulty of the stunt is emphasised. The hero gets bumped and bruised and nearly sliced in two and all sorts of things.
In conclusion, this is a very funny book, and if you are a fan of detective stories, near-future stories, or humorous science fiction, 1 sincerely recommend it.
HAWK & FISHER 2: FEAR AND LOATHING by Simon R. Green
Reprinted as a collection this is three stories about two cops Hawk and Fisher a husband and wife team that would give
Dirty Harry a good name. Written in classic “city cop” crime style the back drop is pure fantasy. While this is the second
collection of stories about Hawk and Fisher they are self-contained and it is not necessary to have read the first
collection. A good read for the beach or train this holiday.
THE SPY WHO HAUNTED ME by Simon R. Green
Simon Green has been publishing science fiction and fantasy since the late 1970s, and has produced several series
(Hawk and Fisher, Deathstalker, Nightside) as well as several stand alone novels from then to date. Despite this, THE
SPY WHO HAUNTED ME is the first of his books I have ever read. It is actually the third book in the Secret Histories
series (following THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN TORC and DAEMONS ARE FOREVER). It does not take the astute
reader long to notice a distinctly `James Bond’ theme in the titles, along with an obvious fantasy/horror slant. The
blurb plays up the Bond ‘n’ Ghoulies approach, while stressing the action and humour of the story. Alas, this, along
with starting reading the series at the end lead me to expect not to enjoy it, and I did not approach the volume with
The general setting and background of Simon’s Secret Histories does indeed feel humorous in a Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman kind of way. Those who have enjoyed GOOD OMENS by the aforementioned authors may find much to enjoy in this book. However, despite my early misgivings, I found that Simon treats his characters and setting with a great deal more respect than you would perhaps expect from the preamble. And I very quickly realised that Simon Green has some seriously fresh ideas. In my time reading fantasy I have come across quite a few takes on the supernatural, so it is to Simon’s credit that I find his creations to be really quite original.
Simon imbues his characters with both this exciting freshness and a kind of comfortable familiarity at the same time, and so I found the text both comfortable to read and oddly compelling. Looks like I might be building up to enjoying this after all…
After an entertaining `pre-credits’ first chapter, which may seem unconnected with the main part of the book in best Bond-movie style (at least until the end, anyway) the story proper starts up. Essentially setting up a kind of super- game of supernatural spy craft for which the prize is a legendary hoard of secrets, our hero Shamen Bond (real name Eddie Drood) is pitched against a colourful group of super-agents in solving a series of increasingly dangerous and fantastic mysteries. As the spies progress through the increasingly impressive mysteries it gradually emerges that not all is as it should be. The story is pleasingly paced and plotted; Simon seems to effortlessly build the tension, giving the book real momentum and eventually feeling really quite evocative of its cinematic inspiration.
So in conclusion I can heartily recommend this to anyone who enjoys contemporary horror in the Sandman/Buffy mould, or anyone who likes the idea of a Bond style adventure with fantasy, or just anyone who wants a nice, fun, exciting story to read.
Oh darn, there I go. I really meant not to like this at the start, but despite my best efforts I ended up enjoying it immensely… Oh well, off I go to find the first two books in the series.
DALEK I LOVED YOU by Nick Griffiths
This book has nothing to do with the recent radio shows chronicling the life of a Dr. Who fan entitled DALEK I LOVE
YOU and DALEK I LOVE YOU TOO. Neither they nor this have anything to do with the 80s synth pop group named
Dalek I Love You either. This is the autobiography of Nick Griffiths, reviewer, journalist, and Dr. Who Fan.
All of these terms are his own and he has probably been paid in all 3 capacities.
Other things about the author:- He is a Tottenham Hotspur Fan. He once worked in a record shop (Our Price). He makes lists of all kinds of things including his 10 favourite/least favourite… just about anything. He has heard of pop groups that most people haven't. He is not Nick Hornby The last of these is probably most significant. Apart from the ‘Dr. Who Fan’ bit, this could just be someone trying to write a Nick Hornby knock-off. Maybe he's just trying to be Nick Hornby for Dr. Who Fans. I don't think he's very good at it and I even wonder about his status as a Dr. Who fan.
He first saw the show when Jon Pertwee starred and managed to stick with it until his parents sent him off to public school. At this point he watched the show only if not playing rugby that day. He doesn't really seem to like the show after Tom Baker leaves and probably didn't watch it that much until the McGann version by which time he is a regular writer for Radio Times on the subject. He has a lot of the videos and watches them often but no-one he knows likes it so he rarely does so in company. He collects all kinds of memorabilia including various toys from cereal packets in the mid 70s. His most expensive purchase was a sign that wasn't actually seen in the film WITHNAIL & I. He has been to Dr Who conventions but he gets paid to do so by Radio Times and spends all his time in the Green Room.
This would probably make a great present for a Dr Who Fan who doesn't pay too much attention and thinks Nick Hornby is so great that they'd settle for 3rd best. Other than that, disappointing.
9TAIL FOX by Jon Courtenay GrimwoodSergeant Bobby Zha is a policeman in San Francisco. He is investigating the murder of a supposed burglar by a young girl who couldn’t even hold the gun steady. He is also looking into the story of a dead baby told to him by a crazy homeless man. Then he is shot dead. After a dream of a celestial fox Bobby wakes to find that he is now Bobby Van Berg, just woken from a coma after more than a decade with a fortune in compensation. He acquires fake ID that says he’s working for various government agencies and in very little time he is investigating his own murder. Is it connected to the shooting or the dead baby or both? Why does his partner deny he was there?
END OF THE WORLD BLUES by Jon Courtenay GrimwoodGrimwood has settled down to be a good writer of near future thrillers.
FELAHEEN by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
I've heard it said that a science fiction novel can be a thriller, romance, comedy or any other genre you care to name.
If that's true, then any other genre can be science fiction if it wants to. This is a good case in point. The cover says this
is a 'mystery'. The quotes on the back include one from CRIME TIME and mention 'Inspector Rebus'. They make it
clear that this is a detective novel rather than anything else. They're right.
It still has an alternate history, but not so much that most of the readers would pay attention to. There's also the genetic manipulation plot, but it's the sort of thing you'd see in James Bond or Frederick Forsyth without thinking of it as SF. More than all of these you have the plot to kill the Emir and the story of Raf's conception (in flashback). This even reads like a detective novel with the revelations at the end.
The worst of it is that this isn't that good as a detective novel. There are parts that make no sense - Raf travels to Tunis to discover who is responsible for an attack on the Emir and starts by getting a job in a small restaurant with no apparent connection to anything. There are other parts that just seem silly - like how Raf can be related to someone yet have no common DNA. Even keeping so much to the end of the book seems clumsy. All of this is a pity because it's such an easy read.
LUCIFER'S DRAGON by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
This book was actually the author’s second published novel (Hodder Headline 1998) reprinted here in the same format
and cover design as his later books. They make a nice matching set.
LUCIFER’S DRAGON suffers from some of the problems encountered by many writers trying to deal with a lot of ideas unfamiliar to the reader. The selling is a far future, high-tech Earth. Somehow, the extrapolations that are taken for granted by the inhabitants but are unfamiliar to a early 21sl century reader, have to be conveyed. There are a lot of jargon words and sections providing information without taking the plot onwards, especially in the beginning of the book. Initially, they get in the way. Later, the novel settles down as the story unfolds.
Angeli is a policeman in neoVenice, who was briefly called in to investigate the death of a security guard at the Doge’s palace. He knows he is not expected to solve the crime, but intends to anyway. It is rumoured that the Doge has been kidnapped and Angeli suspects that the two incidents are connected. This is why he is interested in Karo who he recognises as a rich kid, slumming it. He wants to know how she gets to the ‘levels’ as a sonic barrier very effectively prevents travel between the levels and the privileged sector. As part of his investigation he reviews the history of how Passion diOrclii created the city.
Bound up with the events Angeli wants to unravel is Razz. She is an enhanced, silver-skinned bodyguard to the young Doge. She is killed at the start of the novel and awakens in Zurich in a younger, unaltered body without any notion as to what is going on.
The three sections of the novel are intimately linked and there is a lot of subtlety within it although it is sometimes difficult to see exactly how Razz’s story and Angeli’s section fit together. There is an explanation but it isn’t entirely convincing. Razz’s latter story line is surreal, but insufficient. Once the initial scene-setting is overcome, the details of life in the levels and the interactions between the characters and the events they set in motion is exciting and well plotted. However, there are questions that are hinted at but are not resolved, loose ends that have become entangled in the action and forgotten. This is a promising early novel, and a good indication of the reasons for the large following of readers Grimwood has accrued with his later novels.
STAMPING BUTTERFLIES by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
There is a theory that if a butterfly stamps it’s foot in the Amazon, a hurricane will develop a world away. The idea is
that even the smallest of actions can have a profound effect. Similarly, so can inaction. Each decision we take,
however small, can have greater consequences for other people. This is a concept worth keeping in mind while
reading this book.
The story is told as three separate narratives – past, present and future.
In the period from 1969 into the mid seventies, a young Arab boy struggling to survive in Marrakech becomes involved with musician Jake Razor. When we first meet him, he appears to have only one arm, though it transpires that it is tied behind his back to prevent him using it. In Muslim society, using the left hand is unclean. Many of the things he does are in order to protect Malika, the girl who lives in the rooms below those rented by his mother.
The present is either near future, or a slightly alternative one. They revolve around Prisoner Zero. He made a rather feeble attempt to assassinate the president of the United States. At first, the question is whether the man is sane.
He refuses to speak so they have no idea who he is. Then it is noticed that the symbols he has daubed on his cell wall are of mathematical importance.
Unfortunately, someone washed them off before they can be fully recorded.
In the far future, the Chinese have colonised a complex of planets orbiting one central star in the form of an unfinished Dyson sphere. On one of them, the Forbidden City has been meticulously recreated. The current Emperor, who seems to be selected in a similar way to the Dalai Lama, has decided that he is the only real person and that everyone else is computer generated. However, a young woman by the name of Tris, is on her way to assassinate him.
At first, these three intercut stories seem to be disparate. As the novel progresses, the links between them begin to emerge. It is a cleverly constructed novel and well worth reading.
ONCE UPON A PARSEC: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales edited by David Gullen
I must admit to not being sure on reading the subtitle of this book, “The Book of Alien Fairy Tales” if and how this was
going to work. In actuality, I think it works really well, mainly I think because of the very broad interpretation of what
exactly constitutes a fairy tale. In ONCE UPON A PARSEC the stories also encompass what I would call legends
(where there is a grain of truth distorted over time), fables which like those of Aesop have a moral message, and as
parables which convey a forgotten or forbidden message. Indeed, the blurb on the back of this book gives a more
accurate representation of the scope of this anthology when it says “just as our world is steeped in legends and lore
and half-remembered truths of the mystical and the magical, so are theirs”.
There are seventeen stories in the anthology, including some by well-respected science fiction and fantasy authors. Whilst as usual I have my favourites, I think they are all of a high standard even if the occasional story doesn’t suit my tastes.
The first story in the collection is the excellent “The Little People” by Una McCormack. It’s an SF story which in a short space leaves the reader with plenty to think about. It’s set on a new colony where the adults in desperation have committed a massive war-crime. They believe that they have covered it up so their children won’t have to bear the guilt. However, nothing is completely hidden and as the children find fragments of evidence, they begin to construct their own haunting mythology.
The next story “Lost in the Rewilding” by Paul Di Filipo is also an SF story but like some traditional stories it’s also an origin story, where a pair of genetically-engineered intelligent creatures escape and are the “Adam and Eve” of their race. It’s told as a story handed down orally for generations, so the objective truth of what “happened” is obscured by later embellishments of the narrative.
The next story is “Goblin Autumn” by Adrian Tchaikovsky and is one where the cause of an impending catastrophe has to be puzzled out from clues left in ancient ruins and old warning rhymes. Despite its title it is an SF tale, with the resolution of the tale depending on alien biology and a long-orbit planet such as in Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. As I’ve come to expect from this author, this is a superb tale which cleverly also examines the treatment of “other” and the personal impact of large-scale changes.
“Myths of Sisyphus” by Allen Ashley has a scientific observer talking to intelligent species on the planet Sisyphus, where the they each think they have been expelled from the “paradise” that the other now inhabits. In my opinion the story then loses focus by introducing another species and the new “theme” felt as though it diluted and distracted from the original focus of the narrative.
Chris Beckett in “The Land of Grunts and Squeaks” has written a splendid “fairy story”. It’s a cautionary fairy tale of a telepathic race who are cursed by a witch to only hear their own thoughts. As the hive race struggles to communicate, one person begins to develop a replacement verbal “language” that helps them to co-operate but they are still to be forever pitied for their loneliness and isolation. It’s a clever little tale and is another “fall from grace” type of story.
I also liked Susan Oke’s “The Blood Rose” in which a nursemaid uses a fairy story to impart a “suppressed” history to her young charge. She sees her race as true protectors of a “magical” crystal and whose place has been usurped. But as with many legends, the truth has been distorted over time and all is not as it seemed.
“Starfish” by Liz Williams I found a little confusing, but perhaps that’s the point as it’s about the difficulties of trying to communicate between a human and an alien who has multiple conversations simultaneously.
The next two stories, by Neil Williamson and Aliya Whiteley are both thoughtful tales about being careful what you wish for, though with very different styles, of which I prefer the former. Gaie Sebold and Kim Lakin-Smith both have another SF-style “origin” story; each has a rebellious younger generation forging a new and different life separate from the older generation. By contrast, Jaine Fenn’s “Pale Sister” has an older, altruistic alien passing on a precious heritage to newly arrived humans, and is well-crafted as I would expect from an accomplished author.
The next two stories, “Alpha42 and the Space Hermits” by Stephen Oram and “The Teller and the Starborn” by Peter Sutton puzzled me somewhat as to the point they were trying to make, though I’m sure others will enjoy them.
Ian Whates’ “The Winternet”, which although the people aren’t quite human, still captures the feel of many old stories; ones told around a warm fire sheltering from the cold winter and the threats it holds, but it’s also about the problems and responsibilities of growing up.
The final story in the anthology, “The Awakening” by Bryony Pearce is again an origin story; this time of a machine intelligence helped or “midwifed” by the last two remaining humans.
All in all, this is a first-rate set of stories, and the authors have produced some very readable tales based on an unusual theme. Whilst as usual I have my preferences, I think they are all of high quality even if the occasional story doesn’t suit my tastes. NewCon has yet again shown the superior writing that some small presses are publishing at the moment.
ALL MY SINS REMEMBERED by Joe HaIdeman
This is a reissue - a fix-up of three previously-published tales of the exploits of an interplanetary secret agent,
embedded in an added background story describing his recruitment, his subsequent disillusionment and his progress to
an eventual early retirement.
The last (and last-published) of the three possesses elements of novelty and points of interest but the other two are quite undistinguished. The best parts of the book are the added material used to link these stories into a fairly cohesive whole, although more could have been made of this. The overall story shows the turning of a fundamentally decent and idealistic young man by advanced techniques of brainwashing, deep mental conditioning and personality overlay into an amoral operative performing multiple assassinations as required by his political masters, followed by his eventual mental and physical destruction. This, of course, has been seen elsewhere, although I would be reluctant to stick my neck out and say that Haldeman was (or was not) among the first to write about this kind of thing.
Thus the overall story is the oft-heard theme of the subjugation of honesty, decency and the rights of the individual to political expediency as far as the power and ability to do it are available. It might have been a better book if it had been reconstructed to make more of this aspect, de-emphasising the actual ‘adventures’. As it is, it adds up to something no more than ordinary; well and competently written but displaying no especial distinction.
Forever Free by Joe HaIdeman
In this the long awaited finale to The Forever War and its sequel Forever Peace Joe Haldeman has once again stated
that he is in the forefront of Science Fiction writers.
The story continues with the veterans of the Human Tauran war living on a planet called MF (Middle Finger). A planet that seemed to have no geological history, and that was in a part of space that had been inhabited by an earlier race that the Taurans simply referred to as the Boloor “the lost”. The veterans of the Human Tauran war have stayed still due to the time differentials associated with warp ships, while the human race back home has evolved into a collective mind and simply used the term Man for themselves rather than Human for the non-collective mind “Vets” . Man is keeping an eye on the “Vets” as they are useful as a genetic backup if anything goes wrong with the genetic makeup of the evolved Man. A number of “Vets” decide that enough is enough and they are no longer willing to act as a genetic base line for the human race. They decide to steal a mothballed starship and head 40,000 light years into unknown space to create a new life for themselves and their families so that they will be away from Man and the Taurans. The consequences of their actions to themselves and the other races is something that 110 one could foresee but is revealed as the story unfolds.
Forever Free is an absorbing finale to the other two books and Joe Haldeman is a craftsman at his trade. The plot line unfolds with several twist and turns and the reader is drawn in to feeling a great deal of sympathy for the out of place veterans from the Human Tauran war. Their struggles to get out from under and not to be dominated by what they see, as the cold blooded evolution of the human animal strikes a chord with the reader. The first 200 pages of the book deals with an all to familiar problem of people returning to normal life after fighting in a major conflict and with the problems of the “Vets” just trying to be themselves when the society that they left has changed so dramatically. The only sour note in the whole story was the final conclusion that seemed to be a let down after such a good build up through the bulk of the book, but Forever Free will I'm sure be well received by those who love Joe Haldeman 's work.
MAP’S EDGE by David Hair
Over the years since the first publication of Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS there have been many fantasy novels of
varying style and success. The plethora of such books indicates that there is still an appetite for them. Many of them
contain very similar tropes so to stand out from the crowd, it is important to have a different angle on the expected.
MAP’S EDGE is the first of a new trilogy, sub-titled The Tethered Citadel. Along with the striking cover art by Rory Kee there is immediate interest. There are very familiar elements such as the evil empire and people wielding swords. Differently, the technology has moved on a little from mediaeval warfare and gunpowder has been invented allowing the characters to wield flintlocks and cannon. The magic has a slightly different slant. For the magically talented it manifests at puberty when they get to choose a spirit that will help them manifest their skills. As there are two kinds of magic, they have to be careful to choose the right familiar. Only other sorcerers can see their familiars. A mineral called istariol can be used to enhance the magic but it is rare. Curiously, a great enough concentration can cause rocks to levitate.
Raythe Vyre is a sorcerer who was on the losing side of a rebellion and is living in exile with his daughter Zar at Teshveid on the western edge of the Bolgravian Empire. He is a wanted man. He is masquerading as a healer which is why a party of Bolgravians turn up one night wanting him to heal one of their party. The injured cartomancer is too badly hurt to survive and Raythe knows that when the man dies, so will he. So he kills the Bolgravians. He also finds that the cartomancer appears to have discovered a source of istariol. Cue for a quest.
Raythe persuades practically the whole of the village to join him in his quest to find the istariol – he will need people to mine the mineral. Meanwhile, the sorcerers from the empire are on his trail and hound the party off the edge of the map and into the frozen northern wastes. Naturally, there will be trouble within the party as wagons are damaged and food begins to run low. There is discontent as the original belief in Raythe begins to wane. Many stared out with high ambition – to get istariol, sell it and fund a new insurrection against the Empire. Inevitably there are those whose purpose is selfish, wanting the potential wealth for themselves. The arrogant Elgus is one of these. He is a mercenary leader but the party needs such as him to protect the convoy. He is a source of conflict with unsavoury minions and two sons who think women owe them their virtue. The third, youngest son is decent and pays court to Zar. Unfortunately, this is the kind of grouping that turns up frequently in this kind of novel.
Two plot elements give me concern inn this novel. The first is that Raythe has persuaded the entire village to follow him on a hair-brained scheme when he has only a few notes in the cartomancer’s journal to indicate there is something worth pursuing. Most people would set out to get the proof first before attempting to uproot an entire community and take them on a quest that might amount to nothing, along a route that hasn’t been scouted. And the villagers are gullible to go with him. Secondly, the USP for this trilogy is the concept of the tethered citadel. It doesn’t appear until almost the end of the book.
While there are plenty of readers who always want ‘more of the same, please’, there are not enough outstanding elements in this first volume to make it stand out amongst all the others vying for attention.
SKIN TRADE by Laurell K Hamilton
This is Hamilton’s seventeenth novel featuring vampire hunter Anita Blake. As a Federal Marshal in a world where
vampires and were-animals are an accepted part of society, she hunts down and kills the bad ones. To the
supernatural species, she is known as the Executioner.
SKIN TRADE begins with a bang. Anita opens a parcel in her office to find a severed head of a cop inside. It has been sent to her by a powerful serial killer who is also a vampire. It is an invitation for her to come and get him - if she dare. Flying to Las Vegas, she is joined by three other marshals, all of whom have joined Anita on cases in previous volumes. This vampire is taken very seriously.
During her career, Anita’s character has developed. So too, have her powers, so much so that she cannot be completely regarded as human any more. She is a succubus, which means that she feeds on sexual energy and must do so regularly. To this end, one of her boyfriends (and she has a habit of collecting them) the vampire Jean-Claude and Master of the City of St. Louis, sends a group of his own bodyguards with her. The search for Vittorio, the killer vampire, is hampered by the fact that one of his henchmen appears to be a were-tiger. This makes the situation sensitive as not only is Max, the vampire Master of Las Vegas, married to Bibiana, a were-tiger queen. Anita has developed an affinity for were-tigers, something Bibiana does not like. It doesn’t help that a very ancient vampire imprisoned in Europe, known as Mama Noir, is trying to usurp Anita’s body and is prone to attack when Anita is most vulnerable.
The book is a highly enjoyable romp. It is full of sex and gore. Although Anita is a complex, well-developed character, some of the others are more sketchily portrayed. This is partly because they have appeared in earlier books. It is worth reading this series from the beginning, but equally, this volume can be read alone.
GREAT NORTH ROAD by Peter F Hamilton
For many readers, being faced with a book this size is daunting. Fans of Peter Hamilton’s work will expect it and often
two more of similar dimensions to come. GREAT NORTH ROAD though is a singleton.
Hamilton is a writer whose breadth of imagination can scarcely be contained within the tomes he produces. That flair is evident all through the book. It is, however, three intertwined novels (of reasonable length) that only completely make sense within this structure and the background of all three is complex.
By the time of the action (2143), there has been an exodus to other planets via Gateways, a device Hamilton has used in other novels. One of the Gateways is sited in Newcastle and leads to a planet orbiting Sirius known as St Libra. The planet has been developed to produce bioil, a commodity which is used to fuel transport and homes but also processed into “raw”, the substance that manufactory units use to produce almost every other kind of commodity. The bioil coming from St Libra is controlled by the Norths. Descended from Kane North’s three sons, the North family are all clones. There are a lot of them around.
Sid Hurst is a member of the Newcastle crime squad and he is called in when a naked body is found floating in the Tyne. The corpse is a North. He is landed with the job of identifying the clone and tracking down the murderer. With the political and financial stranglehold the Norths have on the country, this becomes top priority and all the resources regardless of cost are thrown at the situation. One problem is that all Norths are accounted for and those who dumped the body have gone to elaborate lengths to hide their trail. Complicating matters further is the mode of death. Five thin sharp blades inserted into the chest to shred the heart is exactly the same as the method used to kill Bartram, one of the original brothers and his household twenty years previously.
Angela Tramelo has so far spent twenty years in prison, convicted of Bartram North’s murder. She has always maintained that there was an alien in the house that night and that was responsible for the deaths. Now it looks as if she might have been right. Just one problem – no sentient life has ever been discovered on any of the planets humans have colonised and no animal life has been found on St Libra, the site of the original killings.
As a result, an expeditionary force is mounted to go deep into the interior in search of this alien. Angela goes with them.
These two plot concepts unfold in tandem. The third revolves around Angela and is told largely through her memories. It tells of the events that lead up to the point at which she now finds herself. This is the strand that allows the reader insight into the societies, technologies and problems that this future world has had to face.
With a book this size, the question that is often asked is, ‘is it necessary?’ Could cuts have been made? While the answer here is that yes, doing so too drastically would have reduced the richness of the writing.
Could the three narratives be untangled to make a trilogy? No. While the detective ‘novel’ centred around Newcastle would have made a perfectly adequate book on its own, Angela’s story is very much tied in with the way the plot is resolved. For some readers, the expedition to search for the alien, being under the aegis of the military, would be exciting. It is not a straight forward hunt but told on its own it would become tedious. It needs the other strands to strengthen the complexities. Personally, this is where I would have preferred some compaction, though this may be because there are so many characters that it is difficult to get to know those other than the principles who we are introduced to before they set off.
Those who like Hamilton’s work will have an enjoyable journey through this book. Science Fiction fans will gain pleasure in wallowing in the creation of a master of the genre.
MANHATTAN IN REVERSE by Peter F Hamilton
This new book brings together a number of stories published since Hamilton’s first collection A SECOND CHANCE AT
EDEN, although several earlier pieces, including the Novacon 27 Special “Softlight Sins” remain uncollected.
The first, and longest, story “Watching Trees Grow” is set in an alternate history where Rome rules the world, albeit in a
much more enlightened fashion than in Keith
Roberts’ PAVANE. Here we find electric cars on the streets by 1830, the Solar System explored by 1920 and
interstellar colonies established by the end of the 20th Century. The world is effectively run by a handful of great
families for whose members
rejuvenation brings near-immortality and the story follows the efforts of one
family member over two centuries to solve a murder and to bring the perpetrator
to a justice which is at the same time humane and devastating.
Two other long stories feature the detective Paula Myo who played a significant part in the Commonwealth Saga
comprised of PANDORA’S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED. In “The Demon Trap” she is instrumental in bringing an
unpleasant, though well-deserved, retribution to a multiple murderer, while in the title story “Manhattan In Reverse”,
written specifically for this collection, she becomes involved in a case in which familiar themes of First Contact and
Uplift both come into play.
The remaining four stories are all much shorter and explore a variety of issues, albeit in what at first sight appears to
be a relentlessly downbeat fashion. There are no happy endings and the protagonists do not always get the
conclusions they might think they deserve, although the reader may think differently.
To say that “Watching Trees Grow” is the stand-out story in this collection, worth the price of the book on its own, would
be less than fair to the rest of the collection. It comprises a varied and well-balanced selection of stories, showing both
severally and collectively that Hamilton is as accomplished a writer of shorter work as he is of his blockbuster novels
and series. Highly recommended.
PANDORA'S STAR / JUDAS UNCHAINED by Peter F Hamilton
PANDORA’S STAR is part one of The Commonwealth Saga a vast undertaking in two huge volumes, the second
being JUDAS UNCHAINED. The saga combines a lot of elements, not just from science fiction but from other genres
as well. It begins with the discovery of a revolutionary technological development. Just as the first manned mission
lands on Mars, Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs build a prototype wormhole generator which takes them almost
instantaneously to Mars. Space travel becomes obsolete overnight as humankind spreads out from Earth stepping from
planet to planet via the manufactured wormholes. There is no need to control the population, surplus people can just
move on to another world. There is no need for war. If you don’t get on with your neighbour you can settle a new
planet along with those who think the same way as you do. You can live on one planet and commute to work, via a
wormhole, to a job light years away. Rejuvenation, too, becomes commonplace.
When your body begins to fail, the clock can be turned back and youth can be restored but with all the experience of age retained. Death holds no fear. With a regular memory download a new body can be cloned and the memories restored to it, should the old one become too damaged for revival.
This sounds like a recipe for Utopia. The problem is that people are still human. They still have the same ambitions, jealousies, obsessive behaviours they always have had. There is still interpersonal conflict. So, one element of the novel is a detective story. Paula Myo is the best detective in known space. She has always caught the perpetrator of any case she has handled, with one exception.
She has been obsessively pursuing Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin for well over a century. They are terrorists who believe that an alien known as the Starflyer has infiltrated the highest echelons of government and is manipulating humankind for its own nefarious ends. Johansson, she believes, is paranoid. He is also cunning. She suspects that someone is tipping them off as they always seem to be able to slip past her.
It is also a political thriller as the Burnelli family vie for influence. There is adventure as Ozzie Isaacs sets off to explore the Silfen paths. The Silfen are an alien race which seem simple and peace loving. Electronic gadgets tend not to work on the worlds they occupy and there are rumours that they have ways of moving from planet to planet without the use of wormholes.
This is a society that has become dependent on wormholes. Then Dudley Bose, an astronomer at a backwater university makes an alarming discovery. It has been known for a long time that a pair of star systems has been surrounded by an impenetrable shield. At first it was thought that these were Dyson spheres so the systems have been generally known as the Dyson pair. Bose discovers that the shields around the systems appeared instantly and simultaneously. The question is, are these force fields? And have they been erected to keep something in, or something out? Because of the distance the only way to investigate is to build a space ship and visit. The expedition is commanded by Wilson Kime who was on the only manned space flight to Mars. What he and his crew discover is not good news.
This is a very complex plot, and by the end of the first volume, the strands are only just beginning to come together. Some, as yet, seem unconnected from the whole. Hamilton does not introduce random factors without a very good reason and in JUDAS UNCHAINED the final links are made. Although there is a tendency to lose sight of characters during the narrative, they are strongly enough portrayed to be quickly remembered. It becomes more of a problem if the books are read with a time lapse between them These are very large books and require a lot of investment of time to read them. On the plus side, reading Peter Hamilton is enjoyable.
THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
The best advice that can be given is, don’t start from here! This is the second of two enormous books, the first being
THE DREAMING VOID.
The universe is a vast and extraordinary place.
With development of wormhole technology, longevity and re-life processes, the human race has expanded well beyond the solar system, encountering strange celestial objects as well as aliens. Some of the characters have also been encountered in Hamilton’s previous duology, PANDORA’S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED. Although it is not necessary to have read these two volumes, to have does help to understand some of the references which otherwise go unexplained.
The focus of these novels, and a projected third, is the Void. It has been observed for centuries but so far it hasn’t revealed its exact nature. Inigo has been dreaming, in detail, about a young man called Edeard who lives on a planet where electronic technology is impossible, but all have psychic powers of some kind. The dreams pass to other people via the gaianet - linked to the enhancements that most people have to exchange information. The belief is that the dreams come from within the Void. A faction called Living Dream has grown up around the Dreamer and their leader, Ethan, plans to take the followers into the Void to find enlightenment. To help them, they need to find the Second Dreamer and will go to any lengths in their search. The Second Dreamer is Araminta who spends much of the novel trying to keep ahead of the invading snatch squad.
As with all of Hamilton’s novels, it is not as simple as this. In the midst of the mayhem, Paula Myo is trying to track down Troblum who says he has important information for him but who, in a firefight with the Cat (a resurrected opponent of Paula’s), disappears.
In many ways there are two novels here; the story of Edeard and his attempts to clear his city of criminals, and the problems the Commonwealth has in trying to stop Living Dream’s pilgrimage which, it is feared will cause the Void to expand and swallow the galaxy. And there is a hostile force of invading aliens on the way. Although some strands of the plot seem to be tied up by the end of this volume, there are a lot more loose ends hanging about for volume three.
RAY BRADBURY'S FAHRENHEIT 451 - THE AUTHORIZED ADAPTATION by Tim Hamilton
On the back cover, along with the price, you will find the notation ‘Graphic Novel’. This is the only time this term is
used on this book. There are many reasons for such adaptations of famous or worthy novels. There are the versions
that make things easier for those who have trouble reading or do not like to read. Since this book is the same length as
the print version, I don't suppose this is one. Similarly there are those that have great (or at least good) artwork but the
images here are drab and uninspiring - certainly nothing worthy of a poster.
This is a workmanlike adaptation of the original with nothing added and very little taken out. That is all.
For the (hopefully) very few who have never read this book, this is the story of a future America that has banned books and restricted all forms of entertainment to the merely trivial. TV has become all-encompassing and filled with soap opera and faked news. Our Hero, Montag, is a fireman in a world where everything is fireproof and the fireman's job is to burn books and, occasionally, anyone else who gets in the way. This is the story of his personal discovery of books and how they are preserved for future generations.
This is a classic of the SF genre that has crossed over into the general consciousness. You should have read it. To be more precise, you should have read the original novel, not this version. William McCabe
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: A READER’S COMPANION by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
As most Tolkien fans are aware Douglas A. Anderson’s ANNOTATED HOBBIT (1988) is a very well thought of and
much appreciated book, and many of Tolkien’s readers have often wished that the weightier sequel could get a similar
treatment. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull have undertaken the task to provide almost exactly that, although it
soon became apparent that, due to the length of TLOTR and the enormous amount of annotation that could be
applied, such a project would require a tome coming to many thousands of pages.
Therefore instead we have the READER’S COMPANION, which is essentially the annotations published on their own, to be read alongside the main text.
As the authors explain in the introduction the popularity and depth of TLOTR have lead to an enormous number of related references to mythology, academic works, books, essays, films, music and websites, amongst other more obscure links. The purpose of a reader’s guide such as this one is to highlight interesting or explanatory facts and links as they are encountered as one reads TLOTR. In fact, so great is the wealth of related detail that the book, by necessity, can be considered a `boiled down’ distillation of the available material.
Given that this alone runs to 894 pages, one can only try to imagine how large a complete set of references could be, assuming that such a work could actually be possible in the first place… The entries themselves are clearly and concisely written, even if sometimes the actual links are quite obscure. By way of example, the first annotation, concerning the word `Hobbit’, naturally arises from the first line of “Concerning Hobbits” at the beginning of TLOTR, and gives us potential etymologies of the word hobbit, making reference to English (and Old English) folklore, Tolkien’s own remarks on the subject, the Oxford English Dictionary, Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth, folklore in older Germanic languages such as Gothic, and a wide variety of other works, as well as the authors’ own, not inconsiderable, investigations and speculations upon Tolkien’s writings. If this is the `boiled down’ version the thought of the full material scares the willies out of me!
So, why exactly have I given this a 5 star rating? The magnitude of the achievement cannot be overestimated, and the book certainly lives up to its aims.
For a true Tolkien fan (such as I), this is an almost indispensable volume, filled with fascinating insight. But I must append a warning to my recommendation; the casual Tolkien fan may find this a step too far, being perhaps a bit too intense to read `casually’ alongside TLOTR. Indeed, the READER’S COMPANION deliberately assumes that the readers has already read TLOTR, and, due to the complexity and extra detail of this work, it is not recommended that a first time reader of TLOTR attempt to use this at the same time. There is quite enough depth and detail to enjoy in TLOTR the first time around without trying to add more! Nonetheless, for anyone looking for more, especially in terms of understanding much of Tolkien’s process of creation, or for those who are just fascinated by TLOTR and all to do with it, I cannot recommend this enough.
AURORA by David A Hardy
Another member of the BSFG joins the ranks of published novelists…
well-known for his artwork, non-fiction, space and art related books, Dave has achieved another long-standing ambition with the publication of AURORA from Cosmos Books.
It starts in the Blitz one night over London or maybe not… depending on how you look at it. The main story is written in th ree sections: 1940, 1970’s and the near-future of 2018 with another underlying story thread.
It deals with the attempt of a doomed civilisation to save humanity from its own mistakes as well as the uncontrollable external forces of a careless universe.
If the attempts are successful then those who initiate the rescue will never know of the success for it will either change history so they never existed or cause a new branch of the timeline and possibly bring a happier, parallel Earth into existence.
Dave neatly sidesteps the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of time travel by the simple expedient of pointing out that it makes absolutely no difference to the originators of the attempt to change history… they either continue as they are if time branches or they never exist if history changes.
In the Blitz, a few lives change to no effect but a new life is started to great effect while the 70's will bring fond memories to those of us who were old enough to appreciate the times. The near future brings hope for the space exploration aficionado with a real Martian exploration attempt… and discoveries of tilings that can't possibly be, but are! Finally the underlying th read helps explain and link everything together especially with its multiplicity of views from different participants concerning the same events.
Dave has produced an entertaining first novel with an interesting slant on time travel combined with some serious ethical and moral views and questions. For those of us who know him, it is also clear that he has followed the classic advice for a new novelist… “Write about what you know…” and you can find evidence for this in many places. If it has a noticeable flaw then maybe he is a little too expositional in a couple of places.
An enjoyable read and a creditable first novel… available from Andromeda in the very near future.
AURORA: A CHILD OF TWO WORLDS by David A Hardy
There are many authors whose artistic skills are practically zero – though they may think otherwise. Some artists are
unable to write coherently. There is however, a small band of people who can do both. One of these is Freda
Warrington; another is David Hardy.
While Freda concentrates more on her writing and employs her artistic talents secondarily, David Hardy is better known as an astronomical artist. The cover of AURORA, with its limited colour palate is an excellent example of his work.
The novel itself is a revised version of the volume originally published in 2003. It opens in dramatic fashion during a German air raid on London during the Second World War where baby Aurora is a miraculous survivor of a direct hit. Since the book takes place over eighty years Hardy does not fall into the trap of trying to relate the whole of Aurora’s life and only describes the highlights. This includes an episode when she is briefly the star of a rock group. (This section of the book was originally published as a short story in Orbit in 1986). At this time, she is beginning to believe that there is something weird about her. She never gets ill – in fact she was an unexpected survivor of the crash that killed her mother – and she appears much younger than her chronological age.
Most of the answers to the mysteries in the first fifty pages are resolved in the final two-hundred. By 2028, Aurora has changed her name, adjusted her credentials and got herself onto the first manned mission to Mars. Although actually seventy-eight she passes for thirty-five and is accepted for what her credentials say she is – a geologist with an interest in astronomical art. Two important story arcs are played out in the confined circumstances of the expedition. The first concerns Aurora’s abilities which are not confined to her longevity; the second, the discovery of artefacts of an advanced technology. These two arcs come together at the end of the book.
Hardy can probably best be described as a traditional exponent of hard science fiction – the emphasis is on the technology and the scientific discoveries that come from the hard graft of exploration. He doesn’t neglect other areas, hinting at developments in biology and certainly does not dismiss what others might call pseudo-sciences such as dowsing and telepathy giving them roles within his projected future. While many authors would have taken a plot outline similar to this and padded it out to doorstop thickness with detailed angst and emotional upsets between the principal characters, Hardy prefers to keep this mostly offstage.
Like Arthur C. Clarke his focus is on the technology and the sense of wonder to be found by looking outwards and exploring the universe rather than inwards and following others in an exploration of the psyche.
In this revised volume, Hardy has updated the text in line with developments and discoveries since first publication. With a renewed interest in the exploration of Mars, this book will be worth looking at by readers who like the spare style of such old masters as Clarke.
FUTURES: 50 YEARS OF SPACE ART by David A Hardy & Patrick Moore
2004 is the 50th Anniversary of David's first collaboration (THE CHALLENGE OF THE STARS) with Sir Patrick Moore
which was published to great success in 1972 and revised in 1978. Now, in a unique project, they have collaborated
again on this volume with a look at the ways in which our views of the universe and space exploration have changed
in that fifty years as well as the amazing new discoveries made by various space probes and the Hubble. It has a few of
the original 1970s paintings but contains many brand new paintings dealing with things whose existence was
unknown in 1954 or even 1972… pulsars, neutron stars, black holes and jetting galaxies. A superb look at the universe
as we now know it, both in print and the artwork of David.
The text provides information about the sights and meaning of the universe in Patrick's inimitable style but the heart of the book is contained in the pictures which show what is believed to be a realistic view of the universe as we currently understand it… of course, it may change again next week but if it does then David will be up to the challenge of representing it with his artwork.
A fascinating book for anyone interested not only in astronomy but in the look of things from a closer viewpoint to show what it's probably like if we ever get out there.
HARDYWARE: THE ART OF DAVID A HARDY by David A Hardy and Chris Morgan
(includes a foreword by Stephen Baxter)
I became aware of David Hardy’s space art in 1972 when I obtained my first copy of CHALLENGE OF THE STARS, the
book Hardy produced in collaboration with Patrick Moore. I had just begun experimenting with astronomical
illustration and until then the only work I’d been exposed to was that of Chesley Bonestell, whose work I’d sought out
since I’d been in grade school, and Ludek Pesek, whose paintings I knew only through his appearance in a 1970 issue
of National Geographic. While all three approached their subjects with the same integrity and respect for scientific
accuracy, as artists they could hardly have been more different.
Bonestell’s hyper-realism was so intensely compelling that it seemed to set the standard for the solar system itself. When the lunar landscape did not turn out to be as spectacularly Alpine as Bonestell had depicted it, it really seemed as though it was the Moon that was at fault, not the artist.
Pesek, on the other hand, never tried to pretend that his paintings were anything other than the product of his hand. This gave his astronomical art the appearance of plein air paintings - they possessed a casual naturalism made them look for all the world as though they were painted from life.
Hardy’s artwork is a little harder to pigeonhole. Their brilliant colors and simple, bold designs have a decorative quality that irresistibly reminds me of the landscapes of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. They have a vigor and immediacy that is enormously appealing.
Occasionally, this simplicity works against Hardy and a few of his paintings appear cartoonish . . . Looking rather like the backgrounds for an animated cartoon.
Fortunately, these are very much in the minority and the book contains not only some very fine paintings, but some of the best astronomical art done in the latter half of the twentieth century. There is for instance his beautifully- colored image of a terraformed Mars, a Dante-esque hydrogen volcano on Titan, his cover art for VISIONS OF SPACE, which in some ways a definitive space painting, ‘The Way It Should Have Been’, Hardy’s homage to hero Chesley Bonestell, ‘Proxima’s Planet’ and the absolutely exquisite Tapetus: A World in a Rock’. Unfortunately, one of my favourites is missing from the book - other than as a small reproduction of its appearance on a German SF magazine cover: the painting of the seismic exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan that may be one of the best paintings of Titan since Bonestell’s classic 1944 depiction.
It is hard to realize that David Hardy is one of the senior members of the space art community . . . Perhaps the senior member if we limit ourselves to astronomical art (his youthful appearance - he looks a decade younger - may perhaps be due to his passionate interest in rock music. Then again, perhaps not). Bom in 1936 he has been working as a professional astronomical artist for nearly fifty years, making his first sale when he was 18 years old when he contributed eight black and white illustrations to Patrick Moore’s SUN, MYTHS AND MEN . . . At the same time beginning a life-long relationship with the famed astronomer. There appears to have been no aspect of commercial art in which Hardy has not worked. After a stint in the RAF, he worked in the Design Office of Cadbury’s where he created packaging and advertising art for the company’s candies (working in a space theme whenever he could). He went freelance in the mid-60s and has since contributed artwork to virtually every imaginable medium, from book and magazine covers to record album sleeves and video games. He has made his name, however, not so much from his commercial work but from the nearly twenty books that he has illustrated - many of them of his own devising. The most outstanding of these undoubtedly being CHALLENGE OF THE STARS, a book that was created with the conscious intent of being an homage to the 1949 Chesley Bonestell-Willy Ley classic, THE CONQUEST OF SPACE.
This, as I said, was my introduction to Hardy’s work and was very much a major influence on my early attempts at space art.
Looking through the book again vividly recalls the excitement I felt the first time I saw them. This is perhaps one of the uniquely special qualities of his work: its ability to excite and inspire even after years of familiarity.
The subjects of Hardy’s books have not been limited to astronomy. There has been DINOSAURS and ANIMALS FROM THE DAWN OF TIME and a series that included ROCKETS AND SATELLITES, LIGHT AND SIGHT, AIR AND WEATHER and ENERGY AND THE FUTURE. THE FIRES WITHIN, a 1991 book about volcanoes, may be one of his very best works and includes some of the finest renderings of volcanoes and volcanic events I’ve ever seen. In 1990, Hardy created VISIONS OF SPACE for Paper Tiger, a pictorial history of astronomical and space art. This oversize volume featured the work of virtually everyone who has worked in the genre for the past century, all accompanied by literate, meticulously- researched, highly-readable text. It, more than anything else, underscored Hardy’s passionate devotion not only to his art but to the entire genre of astronomical painting.
HARDYWARE is a handsome volume, typical of Paper Tiger’s fine work, attention to detail and exquisite color reproduction.
The selection of art is profuse - perhaps too profuse, since neither animals nor humans appear to be Hardy’s forte. The text especially is fine, combining extensive excerpts from interviews with the artist along with a comprehensive commentary by Chris Morgan that together succeed in bringing Hardy vividly to life. If there is any serious fault it is in the almost useless index, which lists only the titles of Hardy’s paintings. With such a rich, extensive text, it’s frustrating not to be able to look up names, events or places.
ALL TOGETHER DEAD / FROM DEAD TO WORSE by Charlaine Harris
These two books form part of the continuing narrative of Sookie Stackhouse. And follow directly from DEFINITELY
DEAD (see review in last month’s newsletter).
Sookie is a barmaid in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps. For centuries, supernatural beings have been secretly living amongst us. Five years previously, the vampires came out. Legally, they have to be regarded like any ethnic minority bit naturally, there is prejudice – would you want your daughter to sleep with one? There are fundamentalist groups who want to see the vampires wiped out and will resort to violence.
What these groups are unaware of is that there are also weres (wolves, panthers, foxes), shifters (who can become any animal) and fairies. Sookie is a telepath and has recently discovered that she has fairy somewhere in her ancestry. Her boss at the bar is a shifter and two of her ex-lovers are vampires. Her current boyfriend is a weretiger and her lodger is a witch. It is unsurprising that she is unfazed by supernatural creatures.
ALL TOGETHER DEAD, is set in the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Many of Louisiana’s vampires are missing but that is not going to prevent the big vampire summit from taking place in Rhodes. The vampire queen of Louisiana, Sophie-Anne Leclerq, has insisted that Sookie goes with the party, partly because a telepath will be useful as she negotiates with non-vampires (Sookie cannot read vampire minds) and also because she is a witness to the death of the vampire king of Arkansas. Sophie–Anne is to be tried at the summit, accused of killing her husband – an alliance of convenience. Unfortunately, almost as soon as Sookie arrives, three of the Arkansas party are found murdered, then Sookie finds a bomb by the lift. While the manoeuvring and infighting is going on between the vampires, the fundamentalist ant-vampire group Fellowship of the Sun have been temporarily and disastrously been forgotten.
FROM DEAD TO WORSE continues directly from ALL TOGETHER DEAD. It begins positively, with a double wedding which has been anticipated in the last two books. Sookie is there in her role of barmaid when she is pressganged into being a bridesmaid. Among the guests are a smattering of the supernatural groups, vampires, weres, shifters. One guest who catches her eye, an older man with intense charisma, who she later meets and he identifies himself as her fairy great, great grandfather. This is all setting up the background for the gritty heart of the novel. This is the fall-out from Hurricane Katrina and the events of the previous novel. A displaced pack of werewolves makes a move on the local group and the Vegas vampires intend to fill the power vacuum left by these events.
The style is chatty, often seeming inconsequential but the end of these books the reader is sucked into Sookie’s world. These are not deep, books, rather, light, fluffy, enjoyable entertainment.
AN ICE COLD GRAVE by Charlaine Harris
Harris is the creator of off-beat heroines. In this series, of which this is the third, Harper \Connelly has become able to
find dead bodies. The corpses can tell her who they are and how they died, but not, if they were murder victims, who
killed them. She works with her step-brother, Tolliver Lang, who acts as her manager and driver. Sometimes she is just
asked to find out if someone died peacefully, perhaps to confirm that death was from natural causes. Occasionally, the
corpse is a murder victim.
In AN ICE COLD GRAVE, Harper is invited to Doraville in mid-winter to look for a missing boy. His grandmother and the local sheriff have exhausted the usual methods and now Twyla Cotton, the grandmother, is prepared to explore psychic avenues. Despite the problems of not knowing where to begin searching, Harper is far too successful and finds the grisly remains of eight boys, all tortured to death and buried in an isolated spot.
As the weather closes in, Harper becomes the target of the killer trying to cover his tracks, thinking she knows more than she does.
As in all of Harris’s novels, she does not only tell an excellent story, but also allows her characters to develop and moves their lives along. In AN ICE COLD GRAVE, the relationship between Harper and Tolliver undergoes a dramatic change, which will colour how she deals with them in future novels.
This is light, enjoyable reading which sucks you into the lives of the characters.
DEAD IN THE FAMILY by Charlaine Harris
This is the tenth novel in the Sookie Stackhouse series and follows on directly from the events chronicled in the
previous book DEAD AND GONE. In DEAD IN THE FAMILY Sookie is still recovering from being tortured during the
Fairy War when her home arrangements are disrupted by her housemates leaving. No sooner have they left than she
succumbs to a request from her surviving fairy cousin who then moves in. As if that was not enough her lover’s vampire
sire arrives out of the blue with a major problem in tow.
Further complicating the situation is an unforeseen outcome of her granting a favour for the Shreveport werewolf pack and the local ramifications of the two natured (werewolves, etc) revealing their existence to the ‘normal’ human population.
On the positive side her brother Jason seems to be growing up at last and acting responsibly.
The book is a good, straightforward, enjoyable read covering the complicated life of a likable heroine whose helpful good nature, determination and occasional pragmatism sees her and those she loves through the difficulties depicted in this book. It certainly will not disappoint fans of the series and should encourage those who have not read any of the previous books to try them.
DEFINITELY DEAD by Charlaine Harris
This novel is part of a continuing narrative as told by Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie is a telepath. She only knows one
other person like her and he does not feature in this particular volume (though he gets mentioned). The book is set
five years after vampires came out. Not everyone is happy to find that vampires have been in their midst for centuries
and that they must now be considered as an ethnic minority. What humans do not realise is that there are also
enclaves of weres (wolves, panthers, tigers) and fairies.
Sookie is a barmaid in the Louisiana town of Bon Temps. The bar in which she works is frequented by supes (the supernatural races).
The main thrust of the story is Sookie’s visit to New Orleans to sort out her cousin’s effects. Hadley was a vampire and the lover of Louisiana’s vampire queen. The queen has recently married the king of the Arkansas vampires.
Unfortunately, Hadley stole a bracelet, a wedding gift, from the queen, in a fit of pique. The queen needs it back and hopes Sookie will find it amongst Hadley’s possessions. This is not Sookie’s only problem as a family of werewolves have unfinished business with her about the death of their daughter.
As a result of their vendetta, Sookie and her new boyfriend, a weretiger, find themselves pursued through the Louisiana swamps.
The big problem with this novel is that it doesn’t get on with the real story until about half way through. It is light, a little frothy and reads more like a diary with the dates taken out and includes a lot of things that do not add to the thrust of the action, even though they might seem important to Sookie as a person. This book will while away an hour or so on a long train journey.
GRAVE SECRET by Charlaine HarrisCharlaine Harris has a big following and it is easy to see why. Her books are easy to read page turners told as a straightforward, first person narrative. GRAVE SECRET continues the adventures of Harper Connelly and there is not a vampire in sight. (Her other series featuring Sookie Stackhouse features vampires strongly).
RUNEMARKS by Joanne M Harris
There are cynics who like to claim that mainstream writers are using SFF and Fantasy tropes who know nothing about
the genre and are intent on reinventing the wheel. To accuse Joanne Harris of this would be a grave mistake. General
readers will know her for such books as CHOCOLAT and BLACKBERRY WINE but many will not realise that her first
two books (SLEEP, PALE SISTER and THE EVIL SEED) were contemporary novels with a mythological theme
threading through them. With RUNEMARKS, she is returning to her roots. Most people will have an idea of Norse
Mythology and the culmination that is Ragnorak. What isn’t told is what happens afterwards, especially to the ordinary
people of The Middle Worlds. In RUNEMARKS, Harris explores the fate of the surviving gods. In the five hundred years
since Ragnorak The Order has become the religious focus. They worship The Nameless and each village has its
Parson who is in charge of the Good Book. Inside are all the rules people
have to live by. One of these rules stipulates that anyone with a “ruinmark” (runemark) will be Cleansed (i.e. killed). Maddy Smith has one in the palm of her hand, so whenever anything goes wrong, it is obviously her fault. Seven years before, she’d met an Outlander who called himself One-Eye. He knew plenty of stories and she persuaded him to teach her magic. Now fourteen, One-Eye persuades her that in return for his teaching, she can do something for him. He wants her to go into the World Below and fetch an artefact called the Whisperer, for him. The World Below is the place where goblins live. She persuades one of them, Sugar-and-Sack, to lead her because she had forced him to give him his true name. When she reaches the place where the Whisperer is, she meets a youth who calls himself Lucky. She quickly discovers that that he is really Loki, the trickster god. As the plot twists and turns, Maddy and Loki find that they need to go to the Netherworld to release Thor if the balance between Order and Chaos is to be restored. It would be difficult to call this a teen book, even though Maddy is only fourteen, or YA despite this being a kind of Rite of Passage tale. Maddy learns a lot about herself and discovers more about the reality of the world that she lives in than most would want to know, including who she really is. As a mythical fantasy, it deals with a number of issues including identity, loyalty and the dangers of religious tyranny. It is an adventure, and it is fast-paced and fun. An enjoyable read
THE NIGHTMARE FACTORY VOLUME 2 by Joe Harris and Stuart Moore
Art by Vasilis Lolos, Bill Sienkiewicz, Toby Cypress and Nick Stakal .
Thomas Ligotti is a cult writer of horror stories in the tradition of the modern followers of H P Lovecraft. He rarely refers explicitly to the mythos but there is usually a common style there. Here you will find the odd sect of notquite- human worshippers of some creature forgotten by time (see “The Sect of the Idiot”), carnival freaks that seem to have connections to unexplained powerful forces (“Gas Station Carnivals”) and the psychopathic killer that believes he is becoming something more than natural (“The Chymist”). Ligotti’s record with publishers in his own right has been unlucky so far.
This book is published by Fox Atomic Comics the teenage comics publishing imprint connected to 20th Century Fox. They are best known for the comic version of 28 DAYS LATER. This volume and the preceding one are based on the stories of Thomas Ligotti and the title is taken from one of his old collections. The company intend to publish one volume in this series every year and hope to develop a movie based on some of the stories in the same mould as CREEPSHOW or the movie of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Future volumes may not be based on Ligotti’s work.
The writers and illustrators here have a solid record in the US comics market. They have worked on the big names like X-men (Moore & Harris) , Spiderman (Harris), and Batman (Harris & Cypress) and critically acclaimed titles (Sienkiewicz on Elektra:Assassin). The styles of illustration here drift from cartoonish (Cypress) to near-photographic (Sienkiewicz) on occasions. Only Sienkiewicz shows any real artistic worth here and not really enough to sell the book.
Despite the quoted intent of the publishers, I can’t see anything here working on film. The stories are much too thin. There is little more than a character study in each. As an example, “The Chymist” is told as a monologue by the title character. There is only one other character in shot for more than a couple of frames and she is the victim. Although she does speak, we only know that she has done so from the reaction of the chymist. She is only there so that we can see what it is that the chymist does. This might work as the storyteller bit at the end of the film but not for a whole segment. None of the other stories are any more complex.
THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT JOINS THE CIRCUS by Harry Harrison
The first Stainless Steel Rat story was published in 1957 and was a fresh and original tale featuring the eponymous
hero, also known as 'Slippery Jim’ DiGriz, a professional criminal who was forced to turn interstellar law enforcer to
escape the consequences of his misdeeds. It became a book, followed over the years by half a dozen more and now,
after a hiatus of about twelve years, here is another instalment in the saga - presumably the last, since it concludes
with Slippery Jim’s avowed intention to retire and concentrate on writing his memoirs (!). Before that he has taken on
and defeated a master criminal who begins by ostensibly employing to solve a series of mysterious robberies but turns
out to be a con artist intending to avail himself of the Rat’s talents and use him to perpetrate a monumental
I must confess to having been somewhat disappointed. Tastes have changed in thirty-odd years and SF has perhaps become more sophisticated (I certainly hope I have). Thirty years ago the stories had something new to say and Slippery Jim DiGriz was a worthy addition to the pantheon of great SF heroes. By contrast, this latest one seemed short on originality and lacking in excitement. Obviously the ending was never in doubt and on the way the hero’s smug cleverness became a trifle boring. Even the jokey style has lost its lightly amusing touch and become heavy- handed. I seized this book in eager remembrance of past glories, but living on past glories is not enough and without something new to say an ongoing series is in danger of becoming too formulaic.
That said, it is not all bad. Harry probably couldn’t write a really bad book if he tried and there is still plenty here to satisfy. Wait for the paperback though.
THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT OMNIBUS by Harry Harrison
Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat: probably the most famous SF hero I had never previously read. Somehow I
have spent 20+ years reading SF without ever reading a single Stainless Steel Rat book – but I have many glowing
references. So I approached this volume of the first three books (in published order, if not chronologically for the hero)
with both great anticipation and not a small amount of trepidation; can these stories live up to the enormous hype?
This volume consists of THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT (1961), THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT’S REVENGE (1970) and THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT SAVES THE WORLD (1972). Being the first three S.S.R. novels published they are an excellent place to start reading about Slippery Jim diGriz, the outstandingly clever, quickwitted master criminal protagonist. After a lifetime of successful criminal activity in an almost crime-free system some 32,500 years into our future, James Bolivar deGriz is finally captured by the Special Corps and immediately put to work fighting the galaxy’s greatest threats.
And so starts a series of terrific adventures so astonishing that they can only be equalled by the brilliance of the Stainless Steel Rat himself.
The blurb on the back of the volume implies that the books are packed with surreal humour; but I disagree. Where the books are indeed sometimes humorous they can be quite subtle, and always clever. If one is after ‘The Monty Python of the spaceways’ (quoted from the Daily Telegraph) I would recommend the reader rather to Bill, the Galactic Hero, Harry Harrison’s other humorous series, and much more surreal and slapstick than the S.S.R.
I am unashamed to admit to having enjoyed these books enormously.
Harry Harrison writes with such energy and momentum that the reader hardly has time to sit down and think, which is probably a good thing as some of the amazing situations (and equally amazing escapes) may not stand up to serious examination. Nonetheless the writing is beautifully balanced, with descriptions that evoke the maximum colour while failing to interrupt the break-neck speed action. And being written from a first-person perspective the reader can take great pleasure in identifying closely with the hero; he is so roguishly charming it is impossible to dislike him. If one had to pick a character from SF to actually be, then The Stainless Steel Rat has to be somewhere near the top of the list, surely?
If forced to criticise the books then I would have to admit that the stories sometimes jump about a bit too much, taking sudden right-angle turns (and ending the books sometimes as well) based on the deux ex machina; a sudden plot- device where an unexpected event or, literally, device overcomes the insurmountable difficulties faced by the characters. Given the clever way in which the S.S.R. beats all his other problems these sudden `get out of jail free’ cards are slightly disappointing. Still, at least they don’t allow the books to get bogged down in one scene at any point, so they probably serve an important function.
Anyway, that is enough negative – these books are great! In conclusion I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending them, and, if you are like me and have somehow missed out on them for ages, now is an ideal time to correct that oversight – you are in for a treat!
A FISTFUL OF CHARMS by Kim Harrison
Looking at the number of Urban Fantasy books on the shelves these days it would seem that our city streets are
crawling with vampires, that werewolves run rampant every full moon and that witches dwell down every street. This
must be so, in the same way that Colin Dexter’s Oxford has potential serial killers in every college or that murder is a
hobby amongst the inhabitants of the sleepy country villages of Midsomer. So many of these books put the emphasis
on the supernatural inhabitants at the expense of us ordinary humans. Sometimes this can be excused if the plot is
exciting and the characters are vivid and this is necessary to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. A series
needs to grab the reader if they are to want to read other books with the same setting.
Kim Harrison’s series is set in Cincinnati, a minor problem to readers who don’t have a good foundation in American geography. It features Rachel Morgan, a witch. She lives in a deconsecrated church with a screwed up vampire as a housemate and with pixies in the garden. Her ex-boyfriend is human but her current one is another vampire. As A FISTFUL OF CHARMS is the fourth book in a series that currently runs to nine there is a lot of history between the characters that is important to them but unknown to anyone starting from here. It makes full comprehension of the nuances difficult.
At the start of this novel, Rachel is acting as back-up for David, a werewolf.
She is registered as the alpha female (and only member) of his pack. Her position is challenged by a jealous were-female from another pack. As Rachel cannot shapechange she is in a dangerous situation and has to resort to trickery. This is a minor skirmish but sets in motion a useful set of events to counter the real mess that is the thrust of this novel. Rachel needs to shape-change to prove that she is a legitimate pack member. To this end, she asks her friend Ceri to help her cook up a spell from a book of demon curses. This is not going to be a real problem – except perhaps in later volumes as characters in this kind of book tend to accumulate problems. The situation she has to solve that is at the heart of this book concerns her pixie partner, Jenks. His eldest son has been lured into a life of crime by Rachel’s human ex, Nick. As pixies are only four inches tall, she needs another spell to temporarily make Jenks big or he won’t be able to cope with the lower temperatures further north. Simple job you might think, except Nick has stolen a powerful artefact that was thought to have been destroyed centuries ago.
Now he has several werewolf packs desperately trying to get their paws on it and some vampires that are not too happy either. Rachel and Jenks land in a situation that could result in an all-out bloody war between werewolves and vampires unless they can find the artefact before anyone else does.
Once the action gets going, the pace picks up, carrying the reader along.
However, at the start there are a lot of domestic issues that circle around the central situation. Although well written and, in places, fun, there is nothing that really makes it stand out on the shelf. It is well written and largely enjoyable. The characters are well drawn but I didn’t feel emotionally connected to any of them.
On another note, the titles of the books in this series are all cute parodies of Clint Eastwood film titles.
BLACK MAGIC SANCTION by Kim Harrison
This is the latest episode in the continuing saga of Rachel Morgan who is feisty, totally loyal to friends, honourable
and merciful to enemies…. and is a witch. As with the previous novels in the series, this book is full of fast-paced,
nonstop action from start to finish.
At the close of the previous book she was ‘shunned’ by the witch community for allegedly being a black witch and dealing with demons. In this story she is under attack by the coven of moral and ethical standards, the group who legalized her shunning (they also use ‘legal’ lethal white magic). This tale also chronicles her running battle with Trent Kalamack, a closet elf and mega rich businessman/ criminal/politician and the demon Algaliarept. An ex- boyfriend turned thief is also involved.
After a number of kidnap and arrest attempts the coven is successful and she is sentenced without trial to imprisonment in Alcatraz (a good prison for witches as it is surrounded by salt water which destroys spells).
Here, prisoners are drugged to prevent them attempting to cast spells with the more dangerous ones being lobotomized. Rachel is also threatened with genetic slavery as coven members covet the magic potential of her unborn children. Fortunately for her
she has very good friends to rescue her quickly.
As with all the previous books in this series BLACK MAGIC SANCTION is highly readable with well-defined and enjoyable characters and can be enjoyed if read out of sequence. That said, it would be better to read it in chronological order as this will provide useful background information and further flesh out all of the characters. I eagerly look forward to the next episode.
PALE DEMON by Kim HarrisonThis is the latest episode in the continuing saga of Rachel Morgan set in a world where witches, werewolves, pixies, vampires, fairies exist alongside humans, all fear the demons. She is feisty, totally loyal to friends, honorable and merciful to enemies and is also a witch. The book follows on from the events chronicled in BLACK MAGIC SANCTION (reviewed in June 2010).
ANIMA by M John Harrison
Two novels, previously published five years apart, are here collected in one volume. They are described on the back
cover as ‘his two classic love stories’, but apart from this somewhat tenuous thematic link they share little or nothing of
incident, characters or even setting.
THE COURSE OF THE HEART purports to tell the story of three students who were led by an older man in some act – scientific experiment, secret ritual or arcane rite - that is never made clear what, which affects their future lives in unspecified ways. Two of them marry, then divorce, the woman dies of cancer while the man suffers a breakdown. Only the narrator seems able to keep his life in any sort of order, but he has forgotten where they all started from. One is left wondering what it has all been about.
SIGNS OF LIFE manages to be more accessible and is a better book. The firstperson narrator, Mick ‘China’ Rose, and a mate start a business dumping illegal medical waste. He meets and falls in love with Isobel and as their relationship flourishes so also does the company, becoming legitimate and successful. Then he loses Isobel to a business client who will help her to realise her childhood dreams of flight. The firm collapses in bankruptcy and Isobel returns but the renewal of their relationship cannot survive the changes in her and the book ends on an uncertain note with the best of China's life now behind him. He has lost Isobel, his mate and his business, but maybe he has found himself.
Both stories, but especially the first, are written in a curious, choppy style, flitting to-and-fro between various past and present narrative threads which sometimes makes it difficult to pin down the precise order of events or even to determine the time frame in which they are set. In THE COURSE OF THE HEART one encounters passages repeated almost word-for-word in different places, and I also felt I recognised bits taken from earlier short stories although I no longer have that book so I was unable to check it out. Harrison’s writing here is at its best in passages of, at times, almost lyrical description, but the narratives are not strong and both stories suffer from this – the first one more so.
Harrison is not exclusively a Science Fiction writer and in ANIMA he is about as far from SF as he gets. It is worth reading as a work of ‘Literature’, but the true SF aficionado will find it of limited interest.
EMPTY SPACE: A HAUNTING by M John Harrison
This is the third book of a series that began with LIGHT and continued with NOVA SWING. Although I have not read
the preceding volumes, I believe this book can stand on its own and may even provide explanations to things
unexplained previously. The book is divided into three separate strands. Two of them are contemporary with each
other and the third seems to occur (mostly) a long time before them. I understand that several characters and situations
continue from previous volumes. Anna Waterman who, as Anna Kearney, has appeared in previous volumes takes up
a third or more of this one and some of that time also includes a computer drive filled with data that belonged to her
dead husband, Michael Kearney. The "Nova Swing" (from the second book) and its crew take up another third. The
first of the three streams seems to take place on a near-present Earth. There are no real signs of advanced or unusual
technology. The country seems to be much the same as the one we know. I wouldn't be surprised to find the scenery
between Carshalton and Central London looked exactly as it would have when I was there last. The latter two streams
seem to be set in a distant future. Interstellar travel is common as evidenced by the "Nova Swing's” travels although
there's nothing much said about the science behind it except for the toll it takes on a pilot. There is a great deal about
the supposed effects of the Kefahuchi tract (a region in space) on the universe in general. Although no-one
understands how it affects anything they do not seem terribly surprised by the results. The "Nova Swing" is engaged in
ferrying some of the human results of its effects into a quarantine orbit. One of the more grisly results involves a
governess and child that started to occupy the same space at the time when one of the child's parents came home and
tried to separate them and became entangled in a single part-living organism. The tract is described as a place
where physics breaks its own rules but its rule-breaking isn't confined to the place that it seems to be. In the first strand,
Anna Waterman has discovered a computer drive full of her husband’s files. She believes it to be important and that
she should deliver it somewhere although she is uncertain where. As is often the case with such things, the files are
inaccessible to any device she has access to. In addition she is seeing strange phenomena that aren't really there.
Things burst into flames and, moments later, the flames disappear without any damage. Several things seem to be
warnings about the summer house. Despite all this, she seems to spend her time wandering between Carshalton,
London, and the south coast. Meanwhile, the character of the assistant (most of the time she is only known as that) is
investigating two strange deaths at a warehouse. Two people (Enka Mercury and Toni Reno) have been shot and the
bodies are floating in mid air and slowly rising. There is also the image of a woman that has trouble communicating
her name and who claims to come from the future. Do all these mysterious phenomena have anything to do with the
cargo that surrounded the bodies and has just been taken on board by the "Nova Swing" headed for the Kefahuchi
Tract? The crew of the “Nova Swing”, too, will be faced with a ghost that is having trouble communicating. Also, on
board the "Nova Swing", the cargo is starting to escape into the hold. Considering this is quarantined material that
could be very dangerous. Elsewhere, there are other related situations including a
minor war in "The Beach" (the systems closest to the Tract) and something called “The Aleph” which seems more complex and inexplicable than the Tract. It is hard to describe the plot accurately as the great flaw with this novel is that so much seems to just wander aimlessly for most of the story. As a whole, there is a lot going on here and some would want to read it just to find the odd explanation to pieces from the earlier books or for a kind of ending to the whole thing. There are some explanations and characters do advance to some kind of conclusion. The problem is that all of the major plot seems to happen in the background while the foreground concentrates on people not communicating with others and, more importantly, themselves. That last statement may seem nonsensical but there is a good explanation that will become crystal clear by the end of the book. This book is more for the imagination than for anyone that wants a solid plot although Harrison's imagination is remarkable. Maybe there is still another book to be got out of this that can tie up the explanations for the explanations
NOVA SWING by M John Harrison
To say that this book has already been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award is merely to state that Harrison is a
critically acclaimed writer who writes original science fiction. For some, this accolade is the SF equivalent of the Man-
Booker prize. In some minds, nominated books for both these awards are unreadable. They would be wrong. Any book
that gets onto such a short list has to be well written, original and to excite the critics. This latter is the hardest thing to
do. Harrison does it on a regular basis. His books are never easy to read. They have dimensions that often need to be
teased out; ideas that have to be actively pursued through the text but reading thoughtfully can be very rewarding.
The setting is a seedy area on a distant planet. With its bars and rundown apartments it has a Chandleresque feel. Vic Seratonin, though, is not a private eye. He is a tourist guide. The place the tourists want to go is into the event site.
At some time in the past, part of the Kefahuchi Tract fell onto the planet’s surface. This is an area of distorting space where the usual laws of physics do not apply. Venturing into the event site is to enter a surreal landscape where nothing can be trusted. Vic claims to have been in many times. Elizabeth is a client who wants Vic to take her in. More often those who go in do not return or do so after a very long time. Emil Bonaventure claims to have maps showing the way to the centre of the event site. Now close to dying, he resists revealing his notebooks in which he claims the secret is written. Vic would like those diaries.
Bringing anything out of the affected area is strictly forbidden, though every evening a steam of black and white cats leave, and return each dawn.
Aschemann is a policeman whose job is to stop artefacts being removed from the area as they can be extremely dangerous in unexpected ways. He has also set himself up to explore the strange phenomenon at the Café Surf. Here people emerge from the toilets in a steady stream over an evening g, yet hardly anyone seems to go it.
All these aspects of life in Saudade are skilfully interwoven. This is a difficult book to understand fully but at the same time it is worth persevering with. Do not expect a quick, easy read but a volume with a lot of depth packed with characters and ideas
INVASION by Eric L HarryI must admit I ’d never heard of Eric L. Harry before, nor if I had would his previous “military epics” (ARC LIGHT and PROTECT & DEFEND) have appealed to me. (The term “military epic” when describing an SF novel, perhaps unfairly, always reminds me of the appalling David Drake series “Hammer’s Slammers” ) But as I frequently enjoy “alternate history/world” stories I decided to give it a go - I’m glad I did, this is a rattling good yarn.
THE IMAGINARY CORPSE by Tyler Hayes
This debut novel by Tyler Hayes is hard to categorise. The main protagonist, Tippy is a yellow triceratops. He was
once the treasured toy and best friend of a young girl, and together, in her imagination at least, they were detectives
who solved crimes and put the world to rights. However, when something traumatic happened to her world that could
not be reversed or punished, she lost faith in Tippy. However, the broken-hearted and abandoned Tippy now has an
existence in the StillReal, a place where ideas that are no longer needed, but that were once “Real” or Important to
the person who imagined them, end up. As in his former “life”, he is a detective, and he now helps the other
inhabitants of the StillReal to solve their problems. The concept is similar to THE VELVETEEN RABBIT or perhaps
TOY STORY, and in THE IMAGINARY CORPSE the concept is expanded to also include fictional creations,
imaginary friends and recurrent nightmares etc.
One of Tippy’s jobs as a detective is to help new “arrivals” including finding the right area for them to live. The toys etc tend to congregate in Playtime Town, superheroes and villains go to Avatar City, SF types to Chrometown etc. When a new “nightmare”, Spindleman arrives in the Playtime town, Tippy tries to help him adjust and find where he fits in. However, Spindleman is brutally murdered by a mysterious Man in the Coat and Tippy is shocked to discover that this time the death is permanent, which does not happen in the StillReal. The Man in the Coat then continues on a spree of murder, each time gaining strength as he gets closer to Tippy and his friends. Tippy must race against time and form alliances with both friends and “villains” in the quest to unravel the origin and the means to defeat this stranger before it destroys all of the StillReal.
The author clearly has an impressive imagination and the various characters and areas of the world are distinctive and engaging. The plot moves along at quite a rapid pace, which for the most part I enjoyed although occasionally I felt like it needed to pause a little to give the reader time to digest the various revelations or consequences. The juxtaposition of detective-noir and serial killers with mostly toytown/child-friendly characters was unusual and although it worked well most of the time, it occasionally jarred. As I said at the beginning, this is a novel that doesn’t fit easily into a neat grouping and I wonder if this might limit its appeal. However, I like that it is bold and not afraid to take a chance. It will be interesting to see how it works for other readers and what the author writes next.
MEMOIRS OF A MASTER FORGER by William Heaney
There are occasions when I wonder where people think SF/fantasy stops and the mainstream begins. This is a case in
point. If there's a genre here, I'd say it was soap opera. There's nothing here that you wouldn't see on soaps or chat
There are even suggestions that this is to be published as autobiography.
That is taking it a bit too far as this is obviously written as fiction. There is a fantasy element here but it doesn't really make any impact on the plot.
The central character and at least two others see demons. One of these is a severe alcoholic, another is a veteran of the first Gulf War and has been in contact with ‘depleted uranium’ weapons, and the third has just written a book about the subject.
You might think that this puts the book well into the fantasy bracket although there's nothing else here that would. So you have to ask yourself, "Is this really mainstream fiction?" So on to the plot. The main character, William Heaney, is one of those people who finds funding for various charities either from public agencies or private donors. Sometimes he will even contribute himself. He is also a secondhand book dealer. He also has a friend who forges first edition classic novels. At the time of this novel he is working on a copy of a Jane Austen novel. Actually he's working on two copies since he damaged the original. One of these will be sold for a 6 figure sum. There is a delay on this because the forger's girlfriend has just walked out on him. Heaney has already spent his part of this money on a local shelter for the homeless which means that money is going to be a little tight for a while. This doesn't please Heaney's son who, possibly because of this, is being sent to a state school rather than his usual public school. There's also a poet who's just been exposed as a fraud by the papers, an ex-wife who's living with a TV chef, and a daughter who's got a new boyfriend with pierced bits that Heaney doesn't want to think about.
The real oddity is in the promotion of the book. So much is slightly false and not properly thought out. There's an internet diary at http:// butforthegrape.livejournal.com that is supposedly written this year but, from the character of the writer, seems to be set before the beginning of the book which is set at the end of last year. There's the fact that the central character is supposedly the author of the book and this is his autobiography yet this seems to be written as a novel (incidents that should have been in newspapers don't have dates, celebrities don't have names). If nothing else, the ‘Master Forger’ of the title isn't even a forger.
The writing is fairly good and occasionally very visual. Though there are too many characters to get any real feel of any one of them.
THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein
This is one of my favourite Heinlein books (along with The Puppet Masters).
Unlike Stranger in a Strange Land or Time Enough for Love, this is still quite readable. It’s a nicely constructed time-travel, wish-fulfilmerit novel, like Time Enough fo r Love, but without the icky quality of that book.
Dan Davis is one of Heinlein’s hero-engineers, and he’d certainly be my hero for inventing Flexible Frank, the perfect house-keeping machine. According to Heinlein all women want a slave to do the cleaning for them. I certainly do.
Jilted and defrauded of his business by Belle, his erstwhile fiancee, he investigates the possibility of the Long Sleep as a subtle revenge. Being a red blooded Heinlein sort of guy, though, he changes his mind and decides to fight for his rights. Belle has other ideas and forces him into the Long Sleep. He wakes thirty years later to find a number of his inventions in common use but with a mystery surrounding their ownership.
This is an unusually sunny book for Heinlein with little of the right-wing paranoia so common. The women are either low-down rats or splendid competent women with blind spots. And there’s a cat. Reading Heinlein I’m tempted to say, ' To hell with the allergies, I need a character like this in my life.’
This is a great summer feel-good novel. Give it a go.
THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein
First published in 1966, this is one of Heinlein’s several Hugo Award winning novels. It is set on the Moon where what
began as a penal colony is now a thriving community of some three million inhabitants. The main theme is the
successful move by this colony to break away from Earth control and become independent, an idea having an obvious
resonance in the USA which fought its own War of Independence a couple of centuries ago. A secondary theme
describes how a computer system on the Moon achieves spontaneous Artificial Intelligence leading to self-awareness
and this computer entity becomes an ally of the rebels – it is safe to say that without its help their rebellion would
have been quite impossible.
It is typical of Heinlein’s writing that life in the Lunar Colony is fully realised and conveyed to the reader in total detail virtually by inference alone, with no lengthy pauses for explanation, in the same way that a mainstream writer finds no need to explain the function of a street lamp, say, or a bus stop. Having said that, it must be admitted that be veers into the polemical at times to express his belief in the freedom of the individual as opposed to a heavy-handed system of government, a proposition which a science fiction story of this kind is well-suited to display.
For all that, the story mostly rattles along at a tremendous pace, with incidents of excitement and emotion, and one finds oneself rooting for the Loonies all the way even if they are a bunch of scruffy rebels.
One has to bear in mind that this was written over forty years ago. There are incipient signs of the strangeness which infused.Heinlein’s later work (having perhaps begun with STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND a few years earlier ) but apart from that SF readers have probably become more sophisticated since then. It is easy to look back from our present-day perspective and decry much of this book but to do so is to belittle its many good points. To be sure there are faults to be found if you really want to seek for them, but this nevertheless represents one of the all-time greatest SF writers at his cracking best.
THE POISONED CROWN by Amanda Hemingway
This third volume of the Sangreal trilogy features a young boy who has disturbing dreams that transport him to other
worlds. As time goes on it is apparent that these dreams are not make-believe but reality and he has to use these
dreams to fulfil a purpose. He is aided by his mother and ‘uncle’ Bartlemy as well as his friend Hazel who is a witch-in-
This book sounds like a children’s book but as an adult I found it quite gripping. The heroes are indeed children but they are on the verge of adulthood and there are enough adult themes to keep me interested – young love, powerhunger, deities trying to take over the world, etc. The book is too long really for younger people, so it has to keep a good balance so that adults would enjoy it too, and for the most part here it seems to work well. Much of the action in other worlds is set on a world full of water with no land, and the book starts here through the eyes of an albatross which makes for an interesting viewpoint.
If I had one criticism it is that I found Nathan hard to warm to. I warmed to his mother and enigmatic uncle Bartlemy and some other characters but couldn’t quite get to grips with him. The book is the third in a trilogy and I wonder if it suffers from a common fate – that by this point the author ‘expects’ people to be familiar with the characters – I felt I had missed out on a few events which had taken place previously and this meant some elements of the book were closed off to me. References are made to earlier events but without a proper prologue I could not catch up.
So, an entertaining original idea but one which did not quite grab my attention, possibly due to the trilogy element.
THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES by Grady Hendrix
Writing advice often emphasises the use of a ‘hook’ – something that draws readers in and makes them want to keep
reading. I haven’t read Grady Hendrix before, probably because he is better known in the USA than in the UK but the
title of this book did make me smile and want to try the book, so I guess that’s a successful hook.
I’m not sure quite what I expected but this was one of those books which you want to keep reading. It’s set in a small town in the American South and takes place over a decade from 1988 onwards. Patricia is a stressed housewife, worn down with looking after her children and her elderly mother-in-law who has dementia. At the start of the story, Patricia and four other members rebel against the worthy but boring classics in the local “Literary Guild”. They form their own book club, and in a slightly transgressive spirit, start reading more exciting stories about real-life crime and serial killers. Over the next five years they develop supportive friendships until one night when Patricia is viciously attacked in her back yard by a deranged elderly neighbour. This is the catalyst for introducing James Harris, the neighbour’s relative into her life and subsequently to the rest of the community. Handsome and charming, at first he is a welcome breath of fresh air, but something is not quite right about him. He has no bank account or identification and Patricia’s mother-in-law claims to know him from when she was a girl. When children start to go missing from the less reputable parts of town ie where people of colour or little money live, the police and press are unconcerned. But Patricia and her book club begin to wonder whether the charismatic James might be a serial killer. However, when they start their own investigations, it becomes clear he is a far worse monster – but who will believe a group of suburban housewives?
This is a book that I really liked. Cleverly, the seductive nature of the vampire here is not primarily sexual, but in how he uses it to establish a position of respectability in the community that protects him from accusations. The book really looks at privilege and how your credibility depends on your social status, gender and race. When Patricia reports a missing child, she initially gets more response as she is white and more “upmarket” but the police look at the child’s home and immediately blame the mother (and her non-existent boyfriend!) just because she is poor. It’s also about women supporting each other and, in some cases not doing so because of perceived family loyalties. There is misogyny with the husbands’ belittling, and in some cases even gaslighting the wives, and their trusting James more because he is male and he has become an investor in their businesses. Another theme running through the book and linked to the above is betrayal, and what people will do to protect their privileged position.
There are a couple of gruesome incidents in this book which may not suit everyone, but I feel are necessary to both the plot and in establishing the true nature of the monster. Despite the novel being set over a number of years, the pace is excellent and keeps you wanting to turn the pages. As well as outright horror, there are some really tense scenes and confrontations which also work really well. The two main characters have some depth and convincing motivations. It’s also refreshing to have a more mature heroine, and one whose main drive is about protection, particularly of her family and the resulting good and bad consequences. If I have a criticism it is that some of the secondary characters, though effective in adding to the narrative, did occasionally feel a little stereotypical, especially some of the men.
If you’re expecting a paranormal romance or typical urban fantasy, this is not that book. A somewhat inadequate comparison might be Desperate Housewives meets Salem’s Lot. Nevertheless, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and one I would recommend. While definitely dark and not cosy, it wasn’t too horrific for my nervous disposition and I can see this being a very popular book.
DUNE (new illustrated edition) by Frank Herbert
There can be few fans who do not know of DUNE, which has been around now for some thirty-five years. The raison d
’etre of this latest edition is the addition of the dozen illustrations created by John Schoenherr for the original
magazine serialisation, illustrations which author Herbert is said to have preferred over all others. As to whether it is
now enhanced as a reading experience by their inclusion, I have reservations. Although artistically attractive, they are
impressionist rather than representational and do little to provide the reader with a believable visualisation of how
people and places looked (or will look!) in that faroff future world. For that one must look to the De Laurentiis/Lynch
movie of 1984 which, whatever its other faults, constituted what can only be described as a stunning visual
The story of DUNE is immense in scope, dealing as it does with the emergence of a Messiah to lead the human race to a new future, his existence the result of a deliberate, though covert, programme of selective breeding over many generations. His story is set thousands o f years from now against a complex background o f religious manoeuvring, political intrigue, commercial machinations, inter-family rivalry and planetary war. However it is not an easy book to read. It is incredibly detailed, with appendices and a glossary to explain what may not be immediately obvious, and the reader dare leave no sentence unremarked in case some seeming trivial fact or casual remark may assume later significance.
Nevertheless, anyone prepared to put in the effort to understand it fully will find it a rewarding experience. Although it might not quite justify the claim on the front cover that it is the greatest science fiction novel o f all time, it should certainly be on everybody’s list of the top ten.
However, this review must chiefly consider it in the form of this new illustrated edition. It is probably not worth buying it for the illustrations alone but, what I said earlier notwithstanding, it is adorned by Schoenherr’s paintings and if you have not already read it - and you should! - this version is the one to have.
DUNE TRILOGY by Frank Herbert
I read this a while back now, but I found this fascinating and involving. It took me a long time to read, being a
complex world (and a huge book!) but I was drawn in and quickly forgot the ‘80’s film which was the first time I came
across the Dune world. The plotline is known to many, it features the aristocratic Duke Atreides and his family moving
out to the desert planet Arrakis, and the development of his son Paul into a mystical and mythical figure followed by
many. Politics and organised religion seem to be the target themes of the author, and these are well handled. The
spice which is so much a part of Arrakis is what causes political friction, and leads to many of the major events of the
books. The world is well drawn and one of seeming decadence – the richer barons etc become quickly addicted to this
substance, and use it to excess, but Paul finds it is a necessary part of the indigenous Fremens’ existence, and comes
to discover its powers for himself. There are other groups who play a big part in the story – the mysterious Bene
Gesserit who appear to hold such power and control.
I myself was particularly fascinated by the descriptions of Paul and his mother learning to live with the harsh conditions of the planet, and the worms which live out in the desert wastes. These massive creatures are beautifully brought to life and do not merely seem big 2-dimensional monsters. I did however find some of the bad guys a little two-dimensional such as the baron. You never really see into his character and background sufficiently, nor his henchmen who are out to corrupt and kill the Duke. The main characters Paul and his mother, and the Fremen they run into, are for the most part living, real characters and I could really empathise with them. Some of the descriptions really convey the pain and anger or whatever emotion is prevalent at the time – for instance when Paul has to go through a ritual to determine his worth near the start of the tale.
For anyone who has not yet read the book (and many of my generation will know the tale only from the film made many years ago) it is definitely worth a look. I found it far more absorbing than the film, with better representations of the planet and its inhabitants. I was not too daunted by the sheer size of the tome, though the descriptions did sometimes slow the pace down a bit too much. Loved it, thoroughly recommended.
ASH by James Herbert
The eponymous David Ash, detective of the paranormal, is hired through his employers the Psychical Research
Institute to investigate strange goings-on at a place called Comraich Castle. This, he learns, is a “Retreat” where the
sufficiently wealthy ( and they need to be very wealthy indeed ) can withdraw from the world at large – as often as not
to escape the consequences of their past misdeeds – and live out their lives in luxury, comfort and safety without
anyone knowing where they are. It also transpires that the wealthy can be provided with a hiding place for relatives
whom they wish, or need, to conceal: the mad, the bad and the just plain embarrassing. The castle is run by a secret
cabal allegedly set up a couple of centuries ago with the connivance of the Royal Family of the time. Since then it
has grown in power and influence and, being privy to the guilty secrets of the highest in the land, is effectively outside
the law. It even arranges political assassinations on behalf of the Government. Unfortunately, it is becoming apparent
that the Castle is haunted, although that is scarcely an adequate word to describe the situation. A brutal incident in its
history resulted in a curse being placed upon it and the resulting evil influence has grown and festered through the
years and is now being magnified and channelled through some of its less sane inhabitants. There have been one or
two strange incidents, but it is the unpleasantly bloody death of one of the paying guests that has led to outside help
being sought. As Ash arrives, it all begins to escalate. During dinner one evening the food on everyone’s plate turns to
maggots halfway through the meal, causing widespread panic as those who have already eaten them find flies
hatching in their stomachs. Things then go from bad to worse, with people being dismembered, torn to pieces by wild
animals, blown to smithereens, burned alive, etcetera, etcetera, all described in graphic detail. Ash’s encounters with
rats and quite large spiders en route to his escape from the castle almost pale in comparison. The unpleasantness of
these various set pieces is an essential constituent of this kind of modern horror novel. It is almost a pleasure to see so
many thoroughly nasty individuals receiving their just desserts, which provides a kind of rationale for the more horrific
aspects of the story. At the same time, there is a conspiracy theory side to it which is highly intriguing, providing as it
does contrived explanations for a number of the mysteries and unexplained disappearances of recent and, in some
cases, not-so-recent history. It should be said however that the inclusion of at least some of these subsidiary plot
elements, referring to real people, may be of questionable taste. Be that as it may, this aspect certainly makes the
book into something more than a mere tale of horror or the supernatural. It is, in all honesty, not the best-written book
ever. It is over-elaborate, chunks of exposition are almost forced in here and there, the dialogue can be suspect and
some situations and subsidiary characters are clearly shoehorned in just to provide further opportunities to disgust the
susceptible reader. Thus it is longer than it needed to be. If, however, one can overlook these faults, it is possible to be
quite enthralled by the story and the way it all works out, which may broadly speaking be predictable, although the
ending includes a couple of unexpected twists. A reader with a broader range of interest than merely the most rigorous
SF will find much of interest.
HOUSE CORRINO by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
This is the final volume in the “ prequel trilogy” to DUNE, the first two volumes of which I have already reviewed in
these pages. What can I add to what I have said before - that it is written well enough but not as well as the late Frank
Herbert would have written it, and probably different from what he would have written anyway.
As it is, what we have is a tediously long (about 1800 pages in all) account of how several people got to where we already knew they were going to be anyway. There is, of course, a lot of new material, but whether any of it is necessary or worthwhile remains open to argument. Personally, I have found it fairly interesting, but I doubt that I shall attempt to remember it all, or to reread these books, next time I feel like reading DUNE again.
I have also managed to put my finger on one fault that has made me uneasy throughout: that the books are divided into chapters of, on average, about six or so pages, each successive chapter dealing with a different character or narrative thread.
Since there are about ten of these running concurrently it makes for an irritatingly choppy style and one is tempted to dodge back and forth in search of a decent degree of continuity. One does in fact feel a distinct lack of a coherent narrative thread or a significant underlying message.
To sum up: if you really want to read this you may not be too disappointed, but if you need someone else to decide for you - don't bother.
PRELUDE TO DUNE: HOUSE ATREIDES by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
When Frank Herbert died in 1986 he had already started work on a seventh novel in his Dune series. Now Brian
Herbert, in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson, has taken on the continuation of his father’s work, but instead of that
seventh book they have chosen to write a prequel trilogy beginning some forty years before that first epochal novel.
(There is a hint that the seventh book may be completed also at some later date.)
Brian Herbert has obviously immersed himself totally in the saga of Dune and this new volume dovetails perfectly with those already published. The original Dune gave a sense of historical background and from one point of view it is interesting to see where in this background the characters are coming from and how the alliances and rivalries that shaped events in that book came to be.
The earlier lives of several characters who become major players in Dune (Duke Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Liet Kynes, Duncan Idaho, Emperor Shaddam, etc.) are followed and doubtless subsequent volumes will fill in the gaps still remaining. However, it must never be forgotten that it is not Frank Herbert recounting these events and there is no guarantee that they are exactly what was in his subconscious over thirty-five years ago. One has to wonder whether it is right for another hand to take up the pen that he was forced to lay down, however high the motives with which it is done.
I have to say that neither Brian Herbert nor Kevin Anderson seems to be a writer of the calibre of the late Frank Herbert. The book is put together very well and the actual writing is competent and very readable, but the sheer depth which made Dune a milestone in SF, a ground-breaking novel which won both Hugo and Nebula awards, is not there. Nevertheless, despite the reservations I have expressed, it is an interesting and worthwhile addition to the Dune saga.
PRELUDE TO DUNE: HOUSE HARKONNEN by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson here continue the work they began in HOUSE ATREIDES and will conclude in a
third volume still to come - the prehistory of Frank Herbert’s DUNE saga. I said when I reviewed the earlier volume that
it was “an interesting and worthwhile addition to the Dune saga “, but on reflection, and having waded through
another six hundred pages, I find I am not so sure.
The point is, after all, that DUNE was begun with the characters and situations already in existence and fully- formed. One never wondered why characters in the book were the way they were or how they got there, but simply took everything as a given. It is now moderately interesting to read about events in the preceding years but, as I hinted before, there must be doubts as to how close this back story is to what Frank Herbert would have written himself if he had lived long enough and ever wanted to do it.
Having said that, this book, like its predecessor, is well enough written, but lo-o-ong. I found it somewhat tedious as the various characters progressed their lives without actually seeming to get anywhere. The trouble is of course that one has already read DUNE and one knows where and how they are going to end up anyway. Why, then, is it necessary to go through such an excruciatingly lengthy account of events which turn out to be of only moderate importance?
If you are desperate to have every scrap of writing connected in any way with the Dune story, or if you want a good long book to read and are not too bothered what it is, maybe this is for you. Not otherwise.
THE BUTLERIAN JIHAD by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
Having completed the ‘Prelude to Dune’ trilogy these two writers now embark on a ‘Legends of Dune’ trilogy of which
this is Volume 1. Set ten thousand years earlier it begins the story of the overthrow of the sentient and self-aware
Artificial Intelligence which sought to dominate the known universe, enslaving or destroying all humanity in the
process. Clearly Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics had been forgotten.
Although, once started, the story rattles along at a reasonable pace and just about manages to hold the interest, it is not really all that good and the book suffers from an inconclusive ending obviously intended to induce us to buy the succeeding volumes - the story is not finished and various issues remain unresolved. Meanwhile armadas of spaceships have done battle, huge fighting machines have wrought vast swathes of destruction and millions of people have come to a painful and messy end as whole planets (including Earth ) are destroyed.
In fact, as I read the first few chapters I almost thought ‘Doc’ Smith had come to life again.
I find it hard to escape the impression that Herbert and Anderson, not to mention their publishers, are riding the gravy train, trading on the ‘Dune’ name and getting words on paper as quickly as possible before it hits the buffers.
The very first sentence in the book says that history has no beginning and there are always earlier heroes. But are these histories, these heroes, Frank Herbert's own? I could never really feel that they are and it does not seem right for someone else to attempt to create them, particularly when that someone else is unable to reproduce the depth and power of his original work.
The main trouble with this book is that it lacks depth, it is all surface and no substance. To paraphrase what I have said before about these efforts - if you really want to read every word you can find about the ‘Dune’ saga you may enjoy this, but if you need someone to decide for you whether to read it or not my advice is: don't bother.
THE ROAD TO DUNE by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
The late, great Frank Herbert seems to have been one of those people who never throw away any piece of paper with
any form of words on it and when he died in 1986 he left an enormous archive of letters, notes, drafts, chapters,
outlines etc., much of it concerned with his DUNE novels. His son Brian has devoted himself to studying all this
material and has, as well as a biography of his father, produced two trilogies of prequel novels co-written with Kevin J.
Anderson. I have reviewed several of them in these pages and found myself less than overwhelmed, so much so that I
made a point of avoiding the last couple.
Now they have come up with this, which is for the most part more specifically based upon the material left behind by Frank. It divides fairly simply into four sections: starting from the back of the book, these are – Firstly (or lastly, I should perhaps say ) four of their own short stories. One of these is the first story they wrote together based on the DUNE saga; it is connected to the events in the original book and is quite a good tale. The remainder are connected to their own later novels and I found them to contain little of either interest or merit.
Secondly, a baker’s dozen of scenes and chapters written by Frank but omitted from the novel as finally published, together with a further four deleted from the first sequel DUNE MESSIAH. It is explained that these scenes were trimmed from DUNE for the original magazine publication to make it fit better into the editor’s requirements for the lengths of the instalments, but were never reinstated for the subsequent book publication. Presumably, Frank would have had the opportunity to do so but decided against it, and his decision must be accorded some significance. Indeed, one can sometimes see why he chose not to bother bringing them back. Some clearly do not fit and would have had to be extensively revised; nevertheless they are on the whole illuminating and helpful if read in conjunction with the original book(s). Here on their own, however, they are somewhat out-of-place.
Next, a series of letters and notes recounting the original conception of DUNE and the processes of getting it published, first as a serial in ANALOG and then, after many unsuccessful attempts, in book form. This part is perhaps of some interest to an SF historian, but the ordinary day-to-day reader (even an SF reader ) will probably find it less than fascinating.
Last, but not least, a full-length (220 pages) novel entitled SPICE PLANET put together from outlines and drafts left by Frank Herbert himself. I did wonder whether it was in fact the mythical ‘seventh DUNE novel’ which has previously been mentioned elsewhere, but this is not made clear and may not be the case.
What it is, is a preliminary version of DUNE, abandoned by the author while still far from complete. He then started all over again with a radically different concept. Reading it, I was constantly comparing it in my mind with the infinitely better real thing of which this is a pale shadow, looking for familiar characters and events and mentally correlating them with what ‘really’ happened. In comparison it seemed a trivial work, shorter and lacking the depth and subtlety of the final version, and not nearly so complex, engrossing and well-written.
All-in-all, this book stands in relation to the original novel like the bonus disc you get with the ‘Director’s Cut’ of a movie on DVD. There are the deleted scenes, the production notes, the ‘making of’ documentary and even the original release version. Nobody would want the bonus disc without the feature, many would not want it at all, and few would bother with it more than once – all of which comments I feel apply equally to THE ROAD TO DUNE. I hope I have explained enough to enable you to decide which category you fall into – I will only add that rather than a book to be enjoyed in its own right by a casual reader this is more one to be studied by a dedicated DUNE enthusiast who may find something worthwhile in it.
LOVE BITES by Ry Herman
LOVE BITES is a debut novel and is promoted as “A laugh-out-loud feel-good queer romance with a paranormal
twist”. Chloe and Angela are both trying to build new lives after leaving behind their toxic previous relationships, and
feeling hopeless and unhappy. Neither one is looking for a new love but when they meet in a night club, there is a
spark and they discover something in common. As their tentative and initially awkward relationship begins to progress,
both begin to rebuild their confidence. But Angela has a big secret which threatens the relationship – she is a vampire
and the ramifications of that is a not insignificant obstacle to their happiness.
I took a little while to get into this book. I think my problem was that from the blurb I expected a fluffy rom-com vibe but at the start the tone didn’t match that at all. Both of the main protagonists start as unhappy and depressed which made for harder reading than the light-hearted tone of my expectations. However, I persevered and the book did improve.
The female vampire who “preys” on other women is an old one, and both the character and the author recognise this and are trying to avoid the clichés and write/have a genuine romance. The style is pleasant and easy to read and the plot holds together well. I found the most interesting character was Chloe’s Aunt Esther, who is a long-lived, outrageous, tarot-reading, genuine witch and is great fun. She turns up unexpectedly on Chloe’s doorstep at the beginning of the book, moves in uninvited, and proceeds to chivvy Chloe into going out and into a more positive outlook. The other main characters I found far less convincing. There is Chloe’s flatmate, Ari who preaches on street corners but may also be a guardian angel. He seemed to me to serve little purpose until one conversation near the end; Shelley, who is Chloe’s boss and co-incidentally Angela’s landlord and who I found irritatingly over-confident; Finally, there is Tess, Angela’s vampire ex-lover (and sire) who serves as the example of ‘bad’ vampire compared to Angela. She is not only a murderer but more interestingly, she is shown as an emotional vampire, callously grooming and manipulating her victims and probably was the most nuanced character to me. There is also a werewolf thrown in to the story who didn’t seem to add anything much other than to establish their species’ existence in this setting.
While I enjoyed the book by the end, I found the humorous elements less convincing and while sometimes I smiled, it didn’t strike me as laugh-out-loud. Recognising that humour is quite subjective, for me I think it at times distracted and interfered with the flow of the main story and personally didn’t add much.
The book comes to a narratively satisfying conclusion and as far as I’m aware is a stand-alone though there are plenty of threads and possibilities for sequels. As a first novel, while flawed, it should be applauded as daring to go a bit deeper than many urban fantasies into some difficult issues. It tackles matters such as abusive relationships, depression and consent in an interesting way and these for me were the stronger elements that often jarred with the at other times light-hearted tone. If you want something different from standard urban fantasy, then this is definitely worth trying and I think the author has the potential to become better as they gain experience and confidence in their own voice.
MIDNIGHT AT CHERNOBYL The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
(also includes CHERNOBYL: A Sky TV Series, now available on DVD/Blu-ray. Approximately 5 hours)
There can be few who have not heard of Chernobyl, but how many have heard of Chelyabinsk, an installation so secret that it appeared on no maps? So, clearly, the massive explosion that took place there on September 29th 1957, producing fallout over fifty kilometres of Northern Russia and exposing half a million people to dangerous levels of radioactivity, never happened. (Coincidentally this was just a month before a fire at Windscale in northwest England had similar though less catastrophic results.) Dozens of dangerous incidents occurred inside Soviet nuclear facilities over the decades that followed, not one of which was ever publicly admitted by the authorities.
This is the background against which the Soviets embarked upon a massive programme of reactor building. The story told in this book essentially begins with the establishment of an entirely new settlement – an atomgrad, or “atomic city” - in Ukraine, with accommodation for the thousands of workers to build and operate a massive power station with four huge nuclear reactors. This was the Chernobyl plant, and the nearby city was Pripyat. A tale then unfolds of faulty design, shoddy and inadequate materials, slipshod construction, corner-cutting and careless operating procedures, all concealed by typical Soviet secrecy and obfuscation. In other words, an accident waiting to happen. And if it had not happened there, it would have been in one of the many other plants where the same reactor design was employed – indeed, there had been several occurrences already, although all were typically classed as state secrets and none fortunately were as serious as what happened to Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl on April 26th 1986. (Was it really so long ago?)
Higginbotham's book is a scholarly account of what happened, before and after, built up from a combination of personal interviews with the people involved and an incredible amount of research through documentation which until recently was secret. (There is a lot more which still remains unseen.) In fact, just over a hundred pages of the book are devoted to a list giving the source of virtually every statement or assertion made, guaranteeing an authenticity which until recently would have been impossible to achieve, backed up by an eighteen-page bibliography.
The core of Reactor Number Four had been destroyed by a catastrophic explosion. At first the authorities refused to admit that any such thing had happened, then attempted to conceal its magnitude, then claimed that it was under control. In fact fire was still raging uncontrollably, while within two days radioactive fallout had been detected in Sweden, the fire had been photographed by a US satellite and within a week it was known worldwide that something serious had occurred. Despite this the authorities continued to play it down before finally being forced to admit that it was too big to conceal. Orders were given to evacuate a 30-kilometre danger zone which included the city of Pripyat and the surrounding area and a massive operation to bring the situation under some sort of control and clean up after it was begun. Eventually the remains of the reactor were enclosed and the area around became a permanent exclusion zone. The whole process, including the apportioning of blame and the punishing of the guilty, is described in some detail and various fascinating facts emerge, one of the most striking of which is the estimated cost to date - $128 billion. Also, that this event contributed in no small measure to the collapse of the Soviet Union as it had existed hitherto.
In parallel, as it were, with the book is the Sky TV series which presents a visual interpretation of the same events. The same basic story is there, although some things have probably been adjusted and dramatised to suit the different medium of presentation. The production is truly remarkable: it is hard to believe that it was not actually filmed on the spot so good are the reconstructions of the exploding reactor and the surrounding devastation. Where it does excel of course is in presenting to the viewer scenes which might otherwise be left to the imagination – an unwitting fireman picking up a chunk of radioactive burning graphite ejected from the exploding core; local people standing watching the fire from the town and being showered in radioactive dust falling like snow; three volunteers wading waist deep in contaminated water to open a sluice valve under the reactor building; the luckless citizens of Pripyat queueing with what they could carry to sustain them for an absence which they were told would only be for a few days and boarding a fleets of buses, not knowing where they were going or that they would never return home; the burial of bodies sealed in lead coffins and encased in concrete and above all the sight of people suffering the agony and death of radiation sickness.
Perhaps the most telling image is however a photograph in the book of a mass of what came to be known as corium: a solidified lump containing tonnes of silicon dioxide, titanium, zirconium, magnesium and uranium from the melted core, a mass so dangerous that to stand looking at it for five minutes would lead to an inescapable and agonising death. And this is only part of 1000 or so tonnes of core material, including 135 tonnes of uranium, which is now lying about at the bottom of where the reactor used to be. Fortunately, it is sufficiently spread out to hold no danger of becoming active again. Probably. But it will remain dangerously unapproachable for years, or centuries, to come.
It is difficult to recommend which is better – the book or the TV series. Probably it comes down in the end to personal preference, although each may have its part to play in providing an understanding of what a disaster this was. It is interesting to speculate as to what extent the story of Chernobyl might fuel the objections of the anti-nuclear brigade: what is certain is that it could in fact have been much, much worse, almost on a global scale. That it was ultimately brought under some sort of control is to a degree the result of a profligate use of machinery, materials and resources, especially including manpower, which was possible in Soviet Russia but might not be so easy elsewhere – perhaps even here in the UK. What is not in doubt is that everybody should either read or watch the story of what happened once and might happen again in a place less able to deploy the resources to cope with it. (Fukushima anyone?) Michael Jones
HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill
The novel is supernatural horror but the themes running through it are music, guilt and redemption. The main
character, Jude Coyne is an ageing rock musician who has had a string of young girlfriends, all of which he names
after the state they come from. His current one is Georgia who was a performer in a sleazy nightclub. His band spit up
after the deaths of two of the members though he still writes music. He feels guilty that they die and not him.
Jude is a known collector of occult ephemera. When he is offered a ghost via an internet auction site he cannot resist, even though he thinks it is probably a scam. In exchange for his money, he is sent a suit of clothes purported to be haunted by the ghost of the previous owner. It arrives in a heart-shaped box reminiscent of the ones containing chocolates his father used to buy his mother and in which she kept her sewing stuff. When it arrives, Georgia pricks her thumb on a pin hidden in it. Later, strange things start to happen. Danny, Jude's personal assistant, discovers that the woman who sold the haunted suit is the sister of Jude's previous girlfriend. A depressive, Florida killed herself after Jude had sent her back to her sister because he felt it was the best thing for her and he couldn't cope with her mood swings any longer. The ghost is Craddock, Florida's step-father, who is determined to kill Jude and anyone who offers him help. He proves it by persuading Danny to hang himself. Florida's sister, Jessica, claims that Craddock's motive is retribution, saying that it was Jude's treatment of her sister that caused her suicide. This gives Jude another reason to feel guilty and at the same time increases his vulnerability to Craddock's influence.
Driven from their home, Jude and Georgia embark on a wild drive to try and survive and find a way of laying the malevolent spirit.
Music pervades the whole novel. It is not just that Jude is a musician; he also hinds that the best way to banish the influence of the ghost from his mind is to fill the space with music. Florida had once told him that Craddock never allowed music to be played in the car when they travelled. Music was obviously a significant factor in Hill's approach to writing this book. It is of note that the 'Heart-Shaped Box' is a track from Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was an influence in Jude's early career. He also played with Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. The titles of the first two sections in the novel, 'Black Dog' and 'Ride On' are tracks from these two bands. One wonders what Hill had on his turntable when he was writing the book.
This is an excellent debut novel. The characters are well developed, with believable backgrounds which influence their actions. From the start, the tempo is fast, the plot consistent and the tension builds to a crescendo in the third section. If he continues to write this well, Hill has a high-profile future ahead of him.
HORNS by Joe Hill
There are not many books that are exquisite in conception and execution. HORNS is a rare one.
A year after the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, Ig Perrish spends the night drunk and doing unspeakable things. He wakes up to find that he has grown horns. He discovers that not only do people seem unaware of the horns but they confess all the wicked things they would like to do and ask him if it is okay to do a particular sinful thing. His current girlfriend tells him she wants to get fat so that he will leave her, then asks permission to eat a whole box of doughnuts. Looking for help, the receptionist at the hospital tells him all the things she would like to do to the mother of a screaming child, and asks his permission. He gives it and stands back to watch the mayhem.
He learns unpleasant truths from his family, the people he thought were supportive when Merrin was killed. Most of them think he did it. Then he discovers that skin contact with others transfers their darkest secrets to him. In this way he discovers what really happened on the night Merrin died. Then he wants revenge.
Superficially, this could be described as a horror-fantasy novel. It is also a very poignant, character-driven novel about the effects the death of the woman he loves can have on a man. Horns have different meanings in different cultures, so does the concept of the devil. Many of these are explored here. Just as life has many different facets, so does this novel. There is humour and betrayal, the joys of young love as well as a certain amount of grue. What it is not, is predictable.
There are unexpected twists in the structure of the plot as the truth is revealed.
Whatever you normally like reading, give HORNS a go. If nothing else, you will enjoy the sheer quality of the writing.
CITY OF DRAGONS by Robin Hobb
There are times when a book that you know is probably the second of a trilogy ends with a feeling of satisfaction, of
ideas achieved. Similarly, there are third volumes of a trilogy that leave so many threads hanging that there has to be
another. Robin Hobb usually writes trilogies though many of them are set in the same fantasy world and may contain
overlapping characters. The Rain Wild Chronicles began with THE DRAGON KEEPER. The dragon Tintaglia had
steered the sea serpents to the cocooning grounds but instead of fully fledged dragons emerging from them, the
resulting hatchlings were deformed and unable to fend for themselves. As a result young people were chosen to look
after them and accompany them up the Rain Wild River a suitable place to settle. In the sequel, DRAGON HAVEN,
the dragons and their keepers arrived at the ruined but mythical city of Kelsingra where once upon a time dragons and
Elderlings had dwelt side by side. Their goal was achieved, characters had discovered their strengths; some had
found love. Life was going to be hard, but together they could make it work. A good end for a book. CITY OF
DRAGONS is the third in the series. Kelsingra is on the other side of a raging river and it never seems to stop raining.
The dragons are permanently hungry, and grumpy. They have developed on their journey up river but only one can
fly. Rapskal’s dragon, Heeby, is willing to carry Alise across so that she can explore and record the dead city. She is a
woman fascinated by anything to do with dragons and used them as an excuse to flee her abusive sodomite of a
husband but she is also aware that as soon as the wider world find out that Kelsingra has been discovered, vultures will
descend and strip its treasures. Any Elderling artefact, because of its rarity, fetches a high price. This, she is sure, 7
will happen all too soon, especially as Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman and Alise’s lover has to go back down stream to collect the pay of the dragon keepers and buy supplies to make their new life a little more comfortable. The city, however, has surprises for everyone. Hobb’s novels are never straightforward. The main narrative thrust (what happens to the dragons and their keepers) is entangled with the lives of others. The dying Duke of Chalced believes dragon parts will cure him and the tentacles of his empire are far reaching. In fear of his life, Alise’s husband is forced to travel upriver in search of the dragons. Tintaglia’s three Elderlings are in danger; Seldon is being exhibited as a freak in a carnival show and because he exhibits dragon scaling on his skin the unscrupulous want to pass off parts of him as true dragon parts to earn the Duke’s reward. The other two, Malta and Reyn, and their expected child face the same kind of dangers. All the threads of this novel are heading in one direction – towards Kelsingra. The frustrating part is that there has to be a further novel to complete the cycle. Hobb is a fine writer who builds detailed worlds and characters and weaves compelling plots, the kind who makes you wish for more. For a newcomer to her work, it would be better to start with the first volume of this set so that all the nuances of the plot become clear.
DRAGON HAVEN by Robin Hobb
The best of Robin Hobb’s fantasy novels are internally consistent: they have an internal logic that makes sense within
the parameters that she sets. There is magic but it is subtle, not some powerful force that can be wielded by a
practitioner of the dark arts. The magic contained here is possessed by dragons. These dragons are effectively sentient
aliens that can have a symbiotic relationship with humans. There is a sense, though, that the world belonged to
dragons before there were humans around. But that was a very, very long time ago.
There is a lot that humans do not know about their world, that they are only just beginning to discover: the life cycle of dragons for example. They hatch on islands and the juvenile state of the creature is a semi-aware sea serpent.
Then, travelling up the Rain Wild River, they make cocoons on particular beaches and emerge fully formed dragons. At least, that is what is supposed to happen.
In THE DRAGON KEEPER, the first book of this particular series, the last dragon, Tintaglia, has rounded up the last sea-serpents and led them to the cocooning grounds. Unfortunately, those that do emerge are deformed, unable to fly or care for themselves. The local people attempt to feed them but they are a burden on the small provincial town. A group of misfits has been detailed to look after the dragons on their way up river in search of the legendary city of Kelsingra, which some of the dragons remember from their ancestral memories.
When DRAGON HAVEN opens, they are well on their way and the tensions between the mixed group of travellers is already present. City-bred Sedric wants to gather some dragon parts and head back downriver to make his fortune and elope with Alise’s husband. Alise is falling in love with the river barge captain and is torn between her duty and her heart. Greft, one of the dragon keepers is trying to claim leadership of the party. Jess, a hunter is not above blackmail to achieve his ends.
The stresses are compounded when a surge in the river’s water sweeps all away. While most of the dragons manage to wedge themselves amongst the trees until the waters subside, dragons and keepers are separated or lost. For several characters, this is a turning point, discovering what they really want. As they travel onwards it becomes clear that not only have attitudes changed, but so have the dragons and their keepers, not just mentally but physically as well.
This is an excellent, fast-paced novel with characters that exist on many levels. It is not just an adventure in a fantasy world, but adds to the knowledge of this world that Hobb has visited many times before – in nine other novels.
RENEGADE’S MAGIC by Robin Hobb
This is the third volume of a trilogy which started with SHAMAN’S CROSSING and continued in THE FOREST MAGE.
It is the story of Nevare Burrvelle. As a second son he is destined by law to be a soldier. The first volume follows his
training and his first encounters with magic, the second with his fall from grace.
The Eastern boundary of the country of Gernia is a range of mountains inhabited by a people commonly known as Specks. The Great Ones of the Specks are literally that. The fatter you are, the more magic your body can hold. On death they are absorbed into trees and can still communicate with living Great Ones. To build a road through the mountains, the Gernians are cutting down these trees. The magic of the land objects to this so has turned Nevare into a Great One with the expectation that he will find a solution to the problem. To this end, Nevare’s soul was divided so that he was able to learn both Gernian and Speck ways. By the start of Renegade’s Magic, the two parts of him have been reunited in one body, but have not merged into one mind. The fight for control of the body by the two parts of him – Nevare the Gernian and Soldier’s boy, the Speck - mirrors the conflict between the two peoples. A resolution of either does not seem possible.
Robin Hobb has written some superb, long trilogies in the past. This is not her finest. There are some interesting ideas about magic and the rights and wrongs of conflict but there is too much of the philosophy. The book would have benefited from a good prune. This book, however, should not be read in isolation. It is essential that the prvious two volumes are read first.
SHAMAN’S CROSSING Book One of The Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb has made her reputation in writing large, complex fantasy novels. This is the first of her latest series and is
set in a completely different world from any of the others. She has taken the old concept that the first born son
inherited, the second entered the army and the third entered the Church, and hardwired it into her society.
After a successful war, the king of Gernia elevated some of his soldier officers to the nobility, granting them land, titles and equal status with their elder brothers. In some areas, particularly the capital, this is an immediate recipe for tension. Nevare Burvelle, the second or soldier son of one of the new nobles, is the narrator of this volume. He grows up out in the countryside, well away from the politics of state. At one point, in order to teach Nevare the ways of the enemy, his father puts him into the hands a defeated native shaman. The shaman agrees to train the boy but has his own agenda. Although the results are not exactly what his father expected, Nevare does learn some useful survival skills but is also introduced to some of the native mysteries.
Later, Nevare is sent to the academy to learn the skills required of a cavalry officer. It is here that he discovers the penalties of being part of the new nobility. The life at the academy is not meant to be easy but he and the cadets from similar backgrounds find they are targeted for punishment more frequently than the old nobles sons.
The novel has limitations because it is being narrated by a youth who has never been involved in politics and has been brought up well away from them. The background to his situation is given to us in large chunks as he would have learnt as history in the school room. He is the butt of the situation rather than being in the centre of the intrigues. The section in the desert with the shaman is the most interesting part of the volume as it introduces the element of magic that doesn’t come to the forefront of the action until much later. We are given hints that this episode in Nevare’s life is important but until the end it’s relevance is obscure.
It is unfortunate that much of this volume is spent within the academy as this is a very familiar plot element with all the stereotypes one would expect from a boarding school situation. The writing, though, is confident and mostly the reader is carried along by the plot. It does not, however, come up to the standard expected of a Hobb novel.
THE DRAGON KEEPER by Robin HobbThis is the first of a new trilogy set in the world of the Farseer, Live Ships and Tawney Man trilogies. It is set in the Rain Wild River where a tangle of sea serpents have made a perilous journey to the cocooning grounds, the first in generations.
THE INHERITANCE by Robin Hobb & Megan Lindholm
THE INHERITANCE is a collection of short fantasy stories and novellas by Robin Hobb (RH) and Megan Lindholm (ML)
who are, for those of us who were unaware, one and the same person. The stories have been written in two very
different styles both in length and content. Those from ML are much shorter and set within widely different
backgrounds, while those from RH are of novella length and take place in her Six Duchies world in which she has set
three trilogies plus the Rain Wild Chronicles of which only two volumes are currently available.
Of ML’s stories I particularly like “Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” in which an aspiring but failing writer reduced to working in a Sears department store meets a pleasant looking, somewhat tubby, balding, fortyish man who introduces himself as Merlin and changes her life.
“Finis” is a vampire story but with an interesting difference; while “Strays” is the tale of how a neglected and put- upon warrior princess metamorphoses into a queen and hopefully a much better life.
The RL novellas include the “Inheritance” from which the volume is named and relates the manner in which a ‘wizardwood’ pendant contrives to enable a young woman to gain revenge for her grandmother on the man who destroyed her life and fortune; but not in the way she expected: wizardwood being the cocoon in which sea serpents change into dragons. Over a long period of time, because of the magic of the dragons, this wood becomes sentient. See the Liveship Traders trilogy and the Rain Wild Chronicles. Also by RH is my favorite story, which is “Homecoming” and describes the desperate trials and tribulations of the first settlers in the Rain Wild Valley which tear apart many relationships while building some unlikely ones.
While I am not a great fan of short stories, THE INHERITANCE is a collection I greatly enjoyed as I have all of Robin Hobb’s work that I have read.
A RED SUN ALSO RISES by Mark Hodder
I really enjoyed this book. Not at first. I'm not terrifically keen on Steam Punk, the Victorian style of writing, or Jack the
Ripper and I didn't warm to the point of view character, which usually signals the end of my interest in a book. A
reminder email from the newsletter editor caused me to plunge back into the book and a combination of excellent
writing, a fascinating planet and a steady improvement in the PoV kept me reading, with increasing urgency to the
satisfying end at which point I was ignoring my friends in a very rude manner in order to reach the conclusion.
I guess this book could be characterised as a blend of Steam Punk and Planetary Romance with fascinating aliens and a strong ecological message. The point of view character, Aiden Fleischer, followed his father into the church and made a really poor job of it. A weak, ineffectual man, he has none of the abilities necessary to enter the ministry, not even faith.
When we meet him he is stumbling towards an embarrassing infatuation with a young woman that is manipulated by her father into blackmail.
In truth, I had no desire to get to know this man any better or any sympathy for his predicament.
What kept me interested was the entrance onto the stage of Clarissa Stark, crippled, intellectually superior and ultimately Aiden's salvation. His small act of charity, to employ her as his sexton, changes both of their lives.
Aiden's lack of judgement in his parish results in him 'running away' to become a missionary. Thus, a man who could not enthuse already convinced Christians, goes forth to try to convince the natives of a small tropical island, in particular its witch doctor, to turn to Christ.
Without success. Iriputiz, the witch doctor, surreptitiously infects Aiden with a tropical fever. Iriputiz persuades Clarissa that a cure is possible in the hills where he performs a 'heathen ritual' that actually opens a portal into an alien world. At the last minute Clarissa flings herself through with Aiden.
This is the point where the book really comes to life for me. What a world! Two small yellow suns hang in the sky and monsters in the shape of giant molluscs speak of potential dissonance, the dissonance of Clarissa Stark. From this point on we become familiar with the Yatsill, the monsters, who turn out to be jolly fine chaps, especially once they learn English. Clarissa is recognised as an 'aristocrat' by the Yatsill and Aiden as one of the working class. To describe the rest of the action would be to spoil the book but as well as the joy of the Planetary Romance there is the fascination of some ecological/biological detective work, the building of a version of Victorian London, its fall, a battle and a satisfactory if open ending. And a red sun also rose. I will keep my eyes open in the hope of a sequel.
AVILION by Robert Holdstock
AVILION is Robert Holdstock’s official sequel to MYTHAGO WOOD, which was published in 1984 and won the 1985
World Fantasy Best Novel award. The book is described as the `official’ sequel to MYTHAGO WOOD, despite the fact
that Robert has written some 5 other novels, all considered part of the Mythago Wood cycle. AVILION does provide a
brief overview of what has come before, so it is not absolutely crucial to have read the earlier text first, but I would
suggest that it is best to do so.
I reviewed MYTHAGO WOOD last year and found it to be an enjoyable novel, more fairy tale than fantasy, with a pleasant grounding in recognisable English countryside and yet a pleasing otherworldly-ness shared by the best fairytale. As a direct sequel AVILION shares these characteristics, giving the book a comfortably familiar demeanour to anyone who has read the first one.
Not having read the intervening 5 novels I cannot comment on their stories and their relationship to AVILION; nonetheless, AVILION’s story takes place continuing directly on from MYTHAGO WOOD, so it does seem to be a direct sequel, and I did not find any lack of understanding for not having read the other novels. Central characters from the first novel take a slightly more background, but important, role in this story; instead the text focuses on the children of MYTHAGO WOOD’s main protagonist, Stephen Huxley, and his mythago partner Guiwenneth. Thus their children Jack and Yssobel are half human and half mythago, a fact which is central to AVILION’s story.
The book tells two coming-of-age tales that draw together into one story; along the way Jack will discover the real world outside of the wood, and Yssobel will meet various recognisable characters from more traditional myth. The writing itself is clean, with short, well-focussed chapters. At 342 pages one might be tempted to imagine there is some filler, but in general the story keeps up a good pace, and the text is concise without sacrificing narrative or description.
The story itself is inventive and fills its invention with solidity and depth, but sometimes feels arbitrary. The nature of the setting allows for the story to spring forth aspects out of the minds of the characters, and this can sometimes feel mildly disconnecting, although it does reinforce the fairy-tale feel. In particular, the motivations of some of the characters seem like casual whim, even when those same characters are deadly earnest about the importance of their concerns; Yssobel especially seems almost randomly flighty, and yet the most dedicated to the importance of carrying out her impulses.
In the end I found AVILION reasonably satisfying and quite enjoyable, and would be happy to recommend it to readers who enjoy a more fairy-tale style of fantasy. This series strikes me as being unlike anything else I have read, and so at least offer an original read. I would certainly recommend this book if you liked the first novel and are looking for more. That way you can see if your taste runs to this brand of fantasy, and, if so, AVILION will provide more of the same.
MERLIN CODEX 1: CELTIKA by Robert Holdstock
What Holdstock is very good at is taking the familiar and twisting it, putting a slant all of his own on it. He did this to
very effectively in the Mythago Wood series. He also has a great feeling for the misty periods in time when legends
were being formed.
The narrator, Merlin, is a ‘wandering Jew’ figure, continually walking the Earth, unageing. He is nearly immortal, but not god-like. He is magic, but each time he uses his powers, he ages a little. This Merlin is very mean with his skills - he wants to stay young. He also has a strong streak of loyalty.
Merlin arrives at an ice-bound lake towards the end of the long Arctic night. From its depths, he calls the fabulous ship, Argo, and resurrects her captain, Jason. Most people are familiar with the tale of Jason's quest for the Golden fleece, though not everyone knows how his wife, Medea, killed their sons as retribution for Jason's adultery. Merlin has discovered that not only did Medea trick Jason into thinking the boys were dead but that she had hidden them well by sending them seven hundred years into their future.
Grown to manhood, they are alive now.
With the Argo rebuilt, and with a new crew, Jason is prepared anew to search for them.
5 This novel not only adds a new dimension to the classic Greek Myth, but it offers a new slant to the Merlin story. Well paced and enjoyable.
MERLIN CODEX 1: CELTIKA / MERLIN CODEX 2: THE IRON GRAIL by Robert Holdstock
What Holdstock is very good at is taking the familiar and twisting it, putting a slant all of his own on it. He did this to
very effectively in the Mythago Wood series. He also has a great feeling for the misty periods in time when legends
were being formed. To understand fully what he is doing in these novels it is important for the reader to have a good
grounding in mythology, especially Greek, but also that of Britain and other regions.
The narrator, Merlin, is a ‘wandering Jew’ figure, continually walking the Earth.
He is nearly immortal, but not god-like. He has magic, but each time he uses his powers, he ages a little. This Merlin is very mean with his skills - he wants to stay young. He also has a strong streak of loyalty. Merlin arrives at an ice-bound lake towards the end of the long Arctic night. From its depths, he calls the fabulous ship, Argo, and resurrects her captain, Jason.
Medea, who is one of Merlin’s kind was understandably upset when Jason’s affections turned to another woman. The legend tells us that she killed their two sons.
Jason believed this but Merlin tells us that Medea staged that scene and actually spirited the boys away, hiding them in the future. Now, seven centuries have passed and Jason is told the truth.
In CELTIKA, the first of these two novels, Jason goes in search of the first of his sons. The boy, however, now grown to manhood, hates his father and nearly kills him.
THE IRON GRAIL is Jason’s quest for his younger son. Aboard Argo, he sails into the heartland of Alba – ancient Britain. On one side of the river Nantosuelta is the territory held by Urtha, a Celtic king, on the other is the Ghostland, the home of the Dead and the Unborn. For some reason, they have banded together and invaded Urtha’s land, driving his people from their fortress. Trying to find the answers to many questions, including, Where has Medea hidden Jason’s son, Merlin, Argo and her crew have to travel deep into the Shadow lands.
These are well written, thoughtful books which blend myth as we remember it with a complex system of ideas from various sources. Both are very satisfying books to read.
MYTHAGO WOOD by Robert Holdstock
What has not been written about a book published in 1984 that has been so well regarded and critically acclaimed,
having won the 1986 World Fantasy Award and the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire? Well, this new edition of MYTHAGO
WOOD may well be familiar to many, but this reviewer, despite his not inconsiderable knowledge of fantasy, is almost
embarrassed to admit to never having read this one before. So I opened it up with no small anticipation… Initially the
book seemed to come across to me a bit like THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, but as written by H P
Lovecraft. The hero’s wartime experience as backdrop and mysterious discovery of another world, which may not be
entirely easy to enter, recall C. S. Lewis, but the altogether more sinister feeling of dark secrets leans it curiously in the
Cthulhu Mythos direction. The book establishes a very strong narration; our hero has witnessed his own father’s
fascination with the wood sitting on the borders of their home, and returns from WWII to find his own brother mixed up
in the same obsession. It soon transpires that Ryhope Wood is clearly more than it seems and it maintains a sense of
Holdstock just about has the knack of parcelling out the bits of mystical knowledge in just the right trickle to keep the reader interested, although I occasionally found it mildly frustrating to have elements that seemed as if they should be simple kept tantalisingly out of my imaginative grasp. Nonetheless the writers of the popular, but drawn-out, TV series Lost and Heroes could learn much from Holdstock’s pacing.
As the book develops, it deepens almost constantly, eventually opening up into grand vistas of hidden worlds. However, it never devolves into a genre piece; despite, or perhaps because of, the use of so many conventions of mythical stories, it remains very original, although the reader will occasionally feel as if it all should be familiar. Many of the devices employed are drawn from Celtic English myth, but the central core to the idea is far more unusual.
Some may find the book downbeat as Holdstock believes in real, sensible characters – these are human beings, with all the foibles they should have, and not typical fantasy heroes. There are no Catholic definitions of good and evil here, only nature and the inscrutable id to guide us. And this is also a strength of the writing; the hero is easily identified with – he could be any of us.
In all I found MYTHAGO WOOD to be refreshing, enjoyable, occasionally exciting and impressive by turns, but not wholly satisfying.
MYTHAGO WOOD has several `sequels’ set in the same setting, LAVONDYS (1988) and THE HOLLOWING (1993) being chief. Like MYTHAGO WOOD’s hero, I find myself thinking about delving deeper in order to uncover the core secret, but knowing secretly that the ultimate truth may possibly be forever hidden deeper
THE BROKEN KINGS by Robert Holdstock
Robert Holdstock understands the process of myth-making, whether it is in contemporary writing or behind the tales that
have passed to us from classical times. In this 3rd novel in the Merlin Codex series, as well as the previous two in the
series, he is interweaving accepted myths from different cultures with constructs of his own. Most people know of the
stories of Jason and the Argonauts even if they are not sure of the details. They probably know that Medea, Jason’s
wife, killed their two sons when he went off with another woman. Merlin, too, is a familiar figure, though normally
associated with Arthurian myth. The setting here is before Arthur’s birth but seven hundred years after Jason’s time.
The common factor is the man Arthur will know as Merlin. He is a wanderer who ages only slowly and only when he
uses his magic. He sailed with Jason and is now advisor to Urtha, a king of Albion. Across the river from Urtha’s fortress
is the Otherworld, a place of both the dead and the unborn. Both these groups are threatening the world of the living.
At the heart of the problem is the wedding gift that Jason gave Medea. After seven hundred years, Jason and his ship, Argo, have been resurrected. In the previous two volumes Jason sought his sons who, he discovered Medea had actually hidden in the future. The effects of their relationship are still reverberating. To solve the situation, the principle characters need to voyage to Crete.
Three themes reoccurring in Holdstock’s work permeate this novel. Along the river hostels appear as the first sign of trouble. These are portals between the worlds of the living and the Otherworld. Normally, the dead pass one way, the unborn the other. The living are not supposed to be able to cross over but the rules are breaking down. Masks are also a common phenomenon. Merlin masks himself, often as a bird when he wants to spy on others, he uses disguises to travel in the otherworld. Intentions and feelings are hidden and in the heart of Argo is the fragment of the boat Merlin first built as a child. Argo’s origins and loyalties are masked. She has deliberately hidden a betrayal to one of her past captains which has helped worsen the current situation.
Throughout the novel there are mazes and labyrinths. The most overt ones are on Crete itself where the physical maze of tunnels beneath the ground is overlaid by the twists and turns of time. The same is true in the Otherworld and Merlin needs to walk the mazes to unravel the cause from effect and gain a greater understanding of his own nature before he can help Urtha , Argo or Jason.
It is not absolutely necessary to read the other two books in the series to appreciate this one but it helps. It is the kind of book that needs to be read carefully and thoughtfully to understand even part of the contexts within it. However, there is sufficient action and pace to satisfy most readers.
WHEN IT’S A JAR by Tom Holt
Humour is a very difficult thing to write successfully. One of the problems is that not everyone finds the same things
funny. Personally, if someone claims a book made them laugh out loud, I usually find it far too silly. Then I don’t go
for slap-stick comedy movies either. I don’t object to the absurd because it is how the characters react that provides the
interest and humour. The witty line can be appreciated. Too much, so-called humour is forced as if the author has
decided that the characters haven’t done anything laddish for a while and invents a daft action for them. I suppose it is
the smugness of both author and characters who seem to think they have done something clever that I object to. True
humour doesn’t work like that. It should seem almost incidental.
Tom Holt is one of the few authors that can put his characters into absurd situations and allow them to deal with it with wit. In WHEN IT’S A JAR, the main character Maurice Katz is a man hoping to keep his job when redundancies loom. His life begins to go weird when, travelling home on the underground, he overhears a conversation between three women who are knitting. It sounds as if they are talking about him. The knowledgeable reader will recognise them as the three Fates. When, later, he wakes up to find a nine-headed snake on the foot of the bed he is understandably annoyed. He doesn’t mean to kill it, though. He hopes this is a dream but when the corpse doesn’t disappear, he calls Stephanie/Steve, a friend from school who joined the army. She calls a clean-up squad and sometime during the removal, Steve disappears. In trying to find her, he gives up trying to keep his job and eventually turns to another person from school, George, who is now very wealthy for a loan to pay the rent.
The weirdness around Maurice escalates. The new job he acquires after an interview conducted under the influence of a truth drug, involves finding boxes in a basement and leaving them to be collected. Curious, he hangs around until the collectors of the boxes arrive and finds they are the same guys who removed the creature from his bedroom when Steve disappeared. From here, the plot begins to get surreal, involving spatial interdimensions, alternative realities and a man in a glass bottle. Woven through it are mythical figures, doughnuts and the question ‘Where is Theo Bernstein?’ Maurice has been delegated hero of this particular situation but constantly feels that he is floundering against the warped forces of the universe, and doughnuts.
Tom Holt’s plots really defy description and this is a book that just needs to be enjoyed. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense.
MIDNIGHT ROBBER by Nalo Hopkinson
A second novel from the winner of the Locus / John W Campbell award for best new writer and one that is on the final
ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards.
This seems to be an attempt to make a solid science fiction story out of versions of old Caribbean legends. More than likely the ‘legends’ themselves are only stories told in a particular style.
This is the story of a young girl taken by her father, the mayor of a small colony on a distant planet, into exile on a prison colony in a separate dimension when he is convicted of murder. Once there he abuses and rapes her until, on reaching majority, she kills him. She escapes into the forest full of dangerous beasts to live with the other sentient species on this world.
Once she moves into the forest she quickly becomes a legendary character (something like Robin Hood) and there are pieces inserted here and there from this supposed mythology.
While the general story and the legends are fairly well-written there are some flaws. The frequent use of patois can make some things difficult to understand, and there are some oddities to the grammar that I can’t explain either. The legendary status is achieved in a matter of a few months (and only a quarter of the book) on a world of small settlements separated by dense and dangerous forest and seems prepared for a radical change in nature should the story continue.
H P LOVECRAFT: AGAINST THE WORLD, AGAINST LIFE by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq is a controversial French novelist. This book presents an essay of his, together with two Lovecraft
stories (“The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Whisperer in Darkness”). The essay is not an overview of Lovecraft’s work: it’s an
interpretation of what his stories mean.
Houellebecq calls Lovecraft’s work ‘a supreme antidote against all kinds of realism’. But, he argues, it is not escapism either: each story is ‘an open slice of howling fear’. There is no psychological ambiguity: the horrors that Lovecraft describes are absolutely physical. But at the same time, they are unknowable: there is no way of assimilating them into our cognitive or moral framework.
The essay describes Lovecraft’s shortlived marriage and his stay in New York, where he underwent a nervous breakdown.
Houellebecq, like China Mieville, rejects the idea that Lovecraft’s racism was merely ‘of its time’. He states: “It was in New York that [Lovecraft’s] racist opinions turned into a full-fledged racist neurosis.” The violent emotions born of that crisis, he argues, fuelled Lovecraft’s intense creativity in his immediate post-New York years: his major stories were the means by which he worked out a reverse existentialism, a war against life.
This forceful essay is a valuable addition to the secondary literature on Lovecraft – and in particular, on the pivotal story “The Call of Cthulhu”.
However, it has little to say about the more reflective Lovecraft of later stories such as “The Shadow out of Time”. This book is worthwhile, but it’s not the whole story.
STARBORN (Worldmaker 1) by Lucy Hounsom
On the day Kyndra is set to be welcomed into adulthood, her village’s celebration is ruined when she accidentally
breaks the relic at the heart of the ceremony. When the same day a disastrous storm causes havoc, Kyndra is made the
scapegoat and only escapes with her life due to the magical intervention of two mysterious travellers. However, their
aid comes with a cost and reluctantly, Kyndra has to agree to leave the village with them.
The strangers wield powers drawn from the sun and the moon and come from a hidden citadel called Naris. They are investigating a magical phenomenon, the Breaking that is destroying places across the land. Believing Kyndra’s visions may be connected to the Breaking and that she has the potential to become another Sun or Moon wielder, they take her back to their hidden city. In a city divided into rival factions who want to either use or destroy her, Kyndra must struggle to access her latent power and to determine the truth behind the dangers facing her world. Epic fantasy can, to me at least, feel an overcrowded field and it can be difficult to produce something original which still pleases fans of the genre. This author does seem to have managed well with this tricky balancing act. In particular, the believability and depth of the characters is excellent. The main character, Kyndra shows a pleasing growth in maturity from someone being pulled along to someone who actively makes her own decisions. The other characters are also well-delineated and have their own issues which makes them more rounded and interesting.
The story builds well as Kyndra and the reader gradually reveal more about the history and politics of Naris. The climax reaches a satisfactory conclusion whilst still setting up future possibilities for a sequel. This book has been compared with Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy. Whilst fans of that should certainly find much to like, I think this book is superior and an impressive debut.
JOHANNES CABAL THE DETECTIVE by Jonathan L Howard
This is a book that cannot make up its mind what it is. It appears to be set in a late Victorian version of Eastern Europe
populated with a variety of small fictitious Balkan-type states. The three involved here are Mirkarvia, Senza and
Katamenia, though Ruritania (the setting for Anthony Hope’s THE PRISONER OF ZENDA) gets a mention in passing.
These places, though antagonistic towards each other seem to have hybrid cultural roots as both Spanish and German
honorifics are used randomly and names include Russian patronymics. No-one has difficulty communicating, even the
English members of the cast.
There is an element of the steampunk tradition (but without the steam) as aerial transport is provided by four- winged insectile entomopters and a levitating aeroship resembling a flying aircraft carrier.
(It would have been a good idea for the cover artist to consult the book before drawing a gas-filled airship). Although distinctly an adventure of the Englishman Abroad type, the style of writing fits with chronicles of the turn of the 19th century, it is spoilt by too many modern colloquialisms. This is clearly envisioned as an alternative history. It could also have done with intelligent editing as there are factual mistakes and undisciplined changes of viewpoint.
While the presence of the machines indicates retro-fantasy, the main character, Johannes Cabal, pushes it towards horror as he is a necromancer. He claims to be searching for a cure for death, hence his grotesque experiments and ability to bring the dead back to life if only for a short while. It is his hunt for a particular book, the Principia Necromantica, that sees him beginning this adventure in a Mirkarvian dungeon awaiting execution for the theft of it. After Count Marechel offers him a reprieve in order to further his own nefarious plans, Cabal manages to escape, disguised as a minor civil servant, aboard the aeroship, The Princess Hortense. There he meets an old adversary and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery before the real mayhem recommences. So from a ‘boy’s adventure story’ it changes to an ‘Agatha Christie’ and evolves into a ‘James Bond’ adventure (there are spies all over the place). There is an added short story at the end which parodies Indiana Jones.
This novel is billed as ‘comic’; unfortunately, although it is witty in places and contains a degree of farce this is not particularly humorous. The previous book featuring Johannes Cabal had a much more original plot. This one is tired.
JOHANNES CABAL THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan L Howard
Jonathan L Howard’s debut novel is the first of what promises to be a successful series of black comedy fantasy novels.
The protagonist, necromancer and brilliant scientist Johannes Cabal, has made a Faustian pact with the devil but wishes his soul returned. His lack of soul has been impeding further progress in his scientific work and research. The Devil, delighted at the prospect of a new deal with Cabal that might provide him with sufficient amusement to alleviate his eternal boredom, agrees to a new deal; the return of Cabal’s soul in exchange for 100 others within a year. Gleefully the Devil throws an infernal travelling carnival and a ration of black magic into the pact to ‘help’ Cabal in meeting his end of the bargain. Cabal uses this black magic to create some unnatural and peculiar characters as the carnival’s attractions. Cabal also enlists his charismatic and crowd-charming vampire brother to assist in the promotion of the carnival to entice unsuspecting carnival-goers from which Cabal endeavours to recruit his quota of souls.
Cabal is not a hero. He is driven to obsession for necromancy, lacks morality and is an exceptional snob. There are one or two moments in the book where the reader begins to think that Cabal may be empathizing with another character, but these end in chillingly nefarious deeds and conduct. This not only reinforces the reader’s perception of Cabal, but rather satisfyingly ensures that any ‘he’ll-turn-good-by-the-end’ clichés are avoided. However, although occasionally alternating between liking and loathing him, the reader somehow ends up rooting for Cabal by the end of the book.
Howard makes clear that his inspiration for this novel is Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, the early sixties fantasy horror set in a town visited by an evil carnival. Lovers of this cross-genre classic would no doubt find Howard’s comic response to the question ‘where would an evil carnival come from, anyway?’ a fun tale.
This is not laugh-out-loud comic fantasy akin to Pratchett’s Discworld series or Butcher’s Dresden Files. More fittingly it is witty, dry and somewhat clever. If there is a criticism it is that sometimes the comedy is too clever, or that the occasional scene seems to have been constructed purely to place a clever gag into the book.
Another criticism is that there is a large gap after the first third of the book. The carnival goes from having gained 3 souls in one chapter, to only having two more to collect in the next chapter with just a paragraph to summarise the best part of a year. This was a little disappointing, and when coupled with an ending that came a little too quickly, the reader could be easily forgiven for wishing that there had been another 100 pages or so to this book.
Despite any criticisms, the book is a swift, peculiar and entertaining read which is well resolved at the end. The reader is left with enough of an interest in the characters and the hint of a plot that will arc over subsequent novels to leave them looking forward to reading the next one. JOHANNES CABAL THE DETECTIVE will be released in July this year and I for one shall look forward to the next instalment of this most quirky and macabre of comedies.
THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN by Robert E Howard
I originally thought that this would be a nice simple review until I heard Rog saying that he'd had a customer ring up
and ask if this was the same as the two volume omnibus edition of Robert Jordan's Conan stories!!
So rather than just review the book, I decided to also place it in context… The book itself is a collection of REH's 21 Conan stories as well as three drafts, a synopsis, two verses and a fragment together with an article on the Hyborian Age, notes on the people of the Hyborian Age and Stephen Jones' Afterword on REH and Conan… and is also one of the best book bargains of recent publications at £18.99 For a writer who died at the age of thirty (by his own hand), Howard had an incredible influence on the world of fantasy writing. He has probably influenced most non- Tolkienesque fantasy by virtually originating the ‘Swords and Sorcery’ genre. He started writing as a child and tried to turn professional at fifteen although it would be another three years before his first story was accepted by the influential pulp magazine WEIRD TALES… and that was what Howard was… a pulp writer paid by the word, no great literature here but he could tell a story, and he quickly became very popular over the twelve years before his death with his best work transcending its pulp origins.
During his short career he wrote almost every type of pulp fiction: Horror, Sports, Western, Historical and Detective but it's his fantasy and Conan in particular, that ensured his memory will endure. Over the years since he died, his work has been reprinted so many times in hardcover, paperback and comic format that he's probably only outsold by Tolkien.
For anyone who reads Sword and Sorcery or any form of heroic fantasy, you must read this collection of Conan stories… and for anyone familiar with Howard's work, get this volume to replace your mouldering paperbacks or to read instead of damaging your expensive collectable reprints. Heroic warriors, magic, evil sorcerers, beautiful slave girls to rescue, kingdoms to seize, dark gods and civilizations from beyond the dawn of history… Conan has it all. And don't be fooled by the movies, the real Conan is Howard's in these stories… other media versions are pale imitations and so are most of the third party Conans written by other authors since Howard's untimely death.
This volume celebrates the Centenary of Howard’s birth and is bound in imitation leather and beautifully illustrated by our guest speaker this month – Les Edwards.
THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD (Edinburgh Nights1) by T L Huchu
T L Huchu is originally from Zimbabwe and is now a long-term resident of Edinburgh, both facets of which are used
well in this entertaining urban fantasy, one which could be read and appreciated by either YA or adult readers. This is
(as far as I am aware) his first SFF novel, although he has previously published well-regarded mainstream novels.
However, he is not a total newcomer to SFF, having had short fiction published in magazines such as Interzone and
Lightspeed, been shortlisted for the Grand Prix L’Imaginaire and a winner of a Nommo Award for African SFF.
Set in an alternative near-future Edinburgh, this is a city in a full-blown economic collapse. There appears to be little social “safety net” and petty crime, vandalism and homelessness are common. What exactly has happened is not clear although there are references to some sort of conflict with England. Ropa, her younger sister, Izwi, and her grandmother live in a caravan with Ropa as the only breadwinner. Luckily Ropa has a talent, she can communicate with ghosts and she passes messages on to their living relatives for a fee of course (much like a reversed charges phone call where the recipient pays).
When a desperate ghost contacts her about a missing child, she reluctantly accepts even though there is no prospect of payment. However, that single task reveals a number of abducted children, some of who have been returned magically damaged. Attempting to discover more information, she sneaks into the Library of the Dead, the school for registered (and for the most part, wealthy) magicians and apprentices. Once caught, she is reprieved and enrolled thanks to the interjection of an enigmatic senior magician. With the aid of her two friends, apprentice magician, Priya and old school-friend and junior staff member, Jomo they continue looking for the ghost’s missing child. In the process they uncover a child-abduction racket run by magical creatures and magicians and Ropa must fight for her life and those of the children.
I thoroughly enjoyed this urban fantasy. The world-building is superb, including life among the destitute, with its harsh but necessary networks of favours, barter and gang loyalties etc. It is also refreshing to see a different UK backdrop than London. The relationship between Ropa, her gran and sister is well done and is the anchor and foundation of Ropa’s remaining a caring and decent person despite an outer shell of hardness. The set-up and details of the abduction ring are suitably creepy and menacing, and there are also some entertaining and funny chase scenes.
Ropa is believable as someone who is clever but not omniscient. She is intelligent (and knows it) but lacks knowledge and sometimes makes mistakes or judgement errors that land her in trouble. The story is told from Ropa’s point of view and there is some delightful Scottish vocabulary scattered through her speech. Having said that, this is very clearly the first novel in a series. Having introduced the concept of the Library, it actually plays very little part in this story, although there is clearly a lot of potential for the future. I also guessed the identity of the main villain quite early but nevertheless enjoyed the journey to the final confrontation. The reader also is left wanting more information on the back history of both Ropa and what happened to Edinburgh society. Finally, although the story comes to a conclusion, there is clearly still more to be uncovered regarding the reasons and players behind the abduction ring. While not perfect, this is an energetic and original addition to the urban fantasy genre and I certainly look forward to reading the sequel.
FROM THE DEEP OF THE DARK by Stephen Hunt
The political manoeuvrings in Stephen Hunt’s latest steampunk novel get ever more complex and the focus this time
is under the ocean (the previous novel JACK CLOUDIE was set within the airships of the Aerostatical Navy).
With his fondness for submersibles it can only be expected that Jared Black will become involved, this time without his usual crew. Instead, he is inveigled into action by Charlotte Shades, a magician-thief who has been persuaded to steal King Jude’s sceptre, the last remaining item of the crown jewels, from its vault beneath the Parliament building. Dick Tull is a member of the secret service of assigned to watching out for Royalists who, it is rumoured, are planning to overthrow Parliament. It is tracking one suspect that leads him to Black’s door.
Also ending up in the same place are two characters from the fourth novel, SECRETS OF THE FIRE SEA. Jethro Daunt is an ex-cleric working as a detective along with this companion, an ostracised steamman, Boxiron.
For those not familiar with the setting for Hunt’s novels the important thing to be aware of is that the technology is based on steam power. The hints which sneak into the text on occasion suggest that this is a world that has gone through a number of evolutionary upheavals leaving behind remnants of an earlier, more sophisticated, age. Many of the races appear as genetically modified humans and one country breeds organic machines using human slaves. At this point in history, an underwater race, referred to as gill-necks, seem to be moving towards war with the land-bound humans. As Black and his ill-assorted friends discover, they are being manipulated by another race which has come out of the deeps with conquest in mind. On their side, as advisor, is Gemma Dark, a staunch royalist and Black’s estranged sister.
While some elements of the plot are hauntingly familiar, the manipulation of Victorian-level technology is ingenious, the characters are engaging and as an action-packed adventure it works very well. Though it would be better to start with the first volume, THE COURT OF THE AIR, to fully understand the structure of Hunt’s creation it is not absolutely necessary, as long as you are prepared to suspend your disbelief and engage your sense of wonder
JACK CLOUDIE by Stephen HuntThis is the fifth novel set in a world where steam reigns supreme. At least it does in the Jackelian Kingdom. A Jack Cloudie is a sailor on one of the country’s airships. When Jack Keats is condemned to death for nearly pulling off the greatest bank robbery in history, he finds his sentence commuted to service in the Royal Aerostatical Navy. His ship is the Iron Partridge, regarded as the worst and unluckiest ship in the fleet. The ship’s mission: to fly into enemy airspace and find out where they are getting their lifting gas for a new fleet of airships.
SECRETS OF THE FIRE SEA by Stephen Hunt
Love it or loathe it, the term ‘steampunk’ now defines a category of science fiction. Anyone who was at the last
Eastercon would have seen the wonderful costumes worn at the Steampunk Ball on Sunday night and seen the
inventive accoutrements. Victorian SF such as that written by Verne would have been classed as steampunk as
exponents of the genre write with a level of technology roughly equivalent to mid-Victorian.
This is the fourth of Stephen Hunt’s novels set in a world where steam is the principal motive force and electricity is a wild, dangerous beast.
There are clues that once, millennia ago, there was a highly technological civilisation that tore itself apart. Very little evidence of it remains.
One familiar character plays a part in this novel: Commodore Jared Black.
He is captain of a u-boat hired to take passengers to the island of Jago in the Fire Sea: Ortin urs Ortin is the new ambassador from Pericur, a nation of bear-like sentients; Nandi Tibar-Wellking is a student going to Jago to consult the archives; Jethro Daunt is an ex-parson turned detective going to pay respects to the Archbishop of the Circlist church (they deny the existence of gods) and Boxiron is a steamman, a sentient humanoid being whose body runs on steam. They arrive at a crucial time. Trade with the island is declining because there are easier trade passages that involve not crossing the Fire Sea, the First Senator appears to be becoming unhinged and the Archbishop has been murdered. Caught up in these events are Hannah Conquest and Chalph urs Chalph. Hannah is the ward of the Archbishop, left behind when her parents were killed. It is their work in the archives that Nandi particularly wants to complete. Chalph is Hannah’s friend.
Both are shocked when Hannah is drafted to the turbine halls, a place where emanations from the machines cause deformations in the workers.
Jago is a disputed island. All the settlements have been at the fringes, near the warmth of the surrounding magma sea. The ursine Pericurians claim it is holy land while the humans claim it by right of occupation and have the defences to assert that.
It would be easy to pick holes in some of the concepts and to find familiar elements in the text but the overall effect is a good solid adventure in an unusual setting.
THE KINGDOM BEYOND THE WAVES by Stephen Hunt
It is very difficult to know whether this hook should he regarded as science fiction or fantasy. Certainly it would fit with
the Wellsian idea of a scientific romance. It contains elements that have distinct Victorian flavour and ideas that could
respectably grace Swiftian chronicles or be included in the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
THE KINGDOM BEYOND THE WAVES is set in the same world as the author's previous work, THE COURT OF THE AIR. Hut takes place a few years later - there is a very slight overlap of characters. The world is one in which electricity never came to prominence but there is a great reliance on steam power. In fact one race of sentient beings are the steamen who are metallic rather than organic.
Amelia Harsh is a professor of archaeology with an obsession to find the city of Camlantis. This semi-mythical place was supposed to be one of peace and vanished thousands of years before in a 'floatquake'. A 'floatquake' is a seismic event that results in part of the earth becoming an aerial floating island.
Abraham Quest is a wealthy industrialist and self made man. He, too. Wants to find Camlantis. He also wants to see the world living in peace arid harmony hut his future has a rather different slant to Amelia's. However, Quest hank- rolls an expedition into the dangerous Liongeli jungle to find artefacts left behind when the city left. Amelia leads the expedition, to find the lake deep in the jungle, aboard a submarine filled with ex-slavers as crew, Cartosian warrior women as security and a handful of renegades who are hoping that the trip will pay them enough to retire. Many obstacles will he placed across their path.
The quest itself is much of the same order as Alan Quatermain in that each time progress is made, another appears. The main protagonists, Amelia Harsh and Abraham Quest are, in themselves, archetypes the obsessive adventurer and the evil genius. What is interesting about the novel are the subordinate characters, the misfits like Billy Snow, the blind sonar operator who is revealed to have hidden talents. Underused and fascinating are Cornelius fortune, a face changer who does daring deeds as Furnace=breath Nick and his sidekick, Septimoth, a lashlite (basic ally a flying reptile). These two, plus their mysterious housekeeper, make the foundation of an interesting story in their own right.
Whether you enjoy this hook will depend on the kind of fiction you prefer.
THE RISE OF THE IRON MOON by Stephen Hunt
by / 455pgs / paperback £7.99 ISBN: 978-0007232239 Reviewed by This the third book set in a strange world where
science seemed to have got stuck in the steam age. Electricity is a dangerous substance better not toyed with. At the
beginning we rejoin old friends; Molly, a writer of popular celestial fiction, Commodore Black, an under-sea mariner,
and Coppertracks, a sentient metal man whose body also seems to run on steam.
There are new characters such as Purity Drake, a runaway from the Royal Breeding House and Duncan Connor, a retired soldier who will go nowhere without his travel case.
Disturbing rumours are reaching the Jackelian city of Middlesteel of neighbouring states being overrun by barbarians from the Northern wastes.
Kyorin, who has befriended Purity, warns Molly and her friends that the invaders are actually from his home world, Kaliban. This planet which shares an orbit with their own is a wasteland, destroyed by the masters of the stats – biomechanical creatures that destroy and devour everything in their path. The only hope of saving their planet is for Molly and friends to make a hazardous journey to Kaliban to consult a sage of Kyorin’s people.
The setting gives a feel of kind of the fantastical tales of the Victorian era but as it progresses, it provides hints that there is a lot more going on in this universe than has yet been divulged. This leaves an intriguing sense of “what next?” by the end of the book. There are excellent ideas but the juxtaposition of steam-powered civilisation alongside advanced technology and gene manipulation does not always sit easily. Also, some of the more interesting characters do not have enough space to be developed fully. Ultimately, it is high adventure of the old-fashioned kind.
GOD’S WAR by Kameron Hurley
One of the things an SF writer in particular must be good at is building strange but consistent worlds. In GOD’S WAR,
Kameron Hurley has succeeded admirably in my opinion. The novel is set on a future world populated by successive
waves of religious refugees. Similarly to Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the nations of Chenja and Nasheen are clearly
based on Arabic/ Islamic models. However, the alien ecology and the centuries-old war between the two nations have
led to profound changes. Tailored viruses and bugs (derived from the native fauna) are used as weapons in the war
and to a lesser extent beneficially in the civilian society. Indeed much of the technology is organically based. The
radiation and plagues from the frontline also decimate the home population. These factors mean that vast numbers
are constantly killed or maimed in the war and has led to societies where women are in the majority. The two nations
have adapted very differently to this.
In addition, a small number of the population appear to have magical abilities (although this may also be due to genetic mutation/manipulation – I was not completely clear on the origins). Depending on the level of their ability they can manipulate organic tissue and detect or heal diseases.
In addition they can control the native insects using them for spying, defence etc. Other people can also shapeshift their form into animals Nyxnissa, referred to mainly as Nyx, is a disgraced Bel Dame. The Bel Dames are female Nasheenian state-sanctioned assassins sent to kill deserters from the war. After being expelled for doing illegal bounty work, Nyx now survives doing black market smuggling and assassinations with a small team of mercenaries, including a fugitive Chenjan magician, Rhys and a shapeshifter, Khos. When a member of a visiting alien embassy goes missing, the Queen wants her found unofficially so Nyx is given a chance to improve her situation. To do this she must smuggle her team into hostile Chenja. However, there are many factions with reasons to try and stop her.
The novel has received nominations for many awards and there is much I enjoyed. Be warned however, this book is not for the faint-hearted. Nyx’s world is harsh, bloody and brutal and Kameron does not shy away from showing us this. The characters themselves are shaped by their environment and this did make it hard sometimes to find their redeeming qualities. In particular although I found Nyx a convincing character she is not one I liked. Personally I will be reading the sequel but this series will not be to everyone’s taste.
THE LIGHT BRIGADE by Kameron Hurley
Military SF has a long tradition in the Science Fiction genre. If you ask Science Fiction literature fans (and probably
SF film fans as well) to name an example, probably a majority would mention STARSHIP TROOPERS. The author of
this book, Kameron Hurley has also clearly read Heinlein’s book as there are little nods and references that will be
obvious, but it has a very different political viewpoint to Heinlein’s book.
In THE LIGHT BRIGADE, as with STARSHIP TROOPERS we start to follow the story of the training and deployment of a young person, who joins up to fight the “aliens” after their home city in South America is destroyed (Sao Paulo in this book compared to the destruction of Buenos Aires in STARSHIP TROOPERS) and also partially as completion of service leads to citizenship. So far, very much the same. However, the enemy “aliens” are actually human; Martian colonists who want to escape the major corporations who control and dominate life on Earth. Also, Earth citizenship in this book is not just about voting rights but about access to basics such as food, healthcare, education etc.
The corporate-sponsored armies are swiftly whisked to any required theatre of operation by breaking them up into light and then re-forming them (think of the Star Trek transporters). However, not everyone comes back intact from the journey and even those who do learn to keep quiet about some of the things they have seen.
When the protagonist, Dietz (whose gender is deliberately kept vague in the book, hence the use of the singular they/their in this review) starts their combat, they begin to experience combat missions which don’t sync with the experience of the rest of the platoon. At first, they suspect their mental faculties have been affected by the light transport process or some kind of PTSD/combat stress and keep quiet in case they are hauled away by psychiatrists, but after more jumps it becomes clearer that they are experiencing the war differently and Dietz is jumping to different times and places on each mission). They also start to piece together a truer picture of what is happening in the war and the reasons behind it, which are very different from the propaganda they have been fed by the corporations. Ultimately Dietz has to decide whether to remain just an ignorant part of the military or to try and do something useful.
I enjoyed this book although it is not one that you can just breeze through in a night. The clear political agenda about the “corporate/military” treatment of people as commodities to be used up for short-term profit etc is one which may not be to everyone’s taste, but works well within the book and as a comment on much modern-day politics. Along with the main storyline, the narrative is also interspersed with an ongoing interrogation interview between an unknown subject and an interrogator, which slowly begins to mesh with and provide more clues to what is behind Dietz’s experience and what is happening in the world of this story. The out-of-sequence missions (effectively time travel) are complex but are well-handled so that the information Dietz acquires after each one is also consistent with their own personal timeline (ie I didn’t suddenly find that Dietz knew something which he hadn’t yet experienced up to that point).
Apart from a couple of instances where there are some conversations which clearly highlight the conclusions or opinions the reader is meant to have, it is not too heavy-handed and mainly left to the reader to use their own thinking to pull together the various bits and pieces to work out what is really going on, which makes for a more satisfying read. This is a challenging but rewarding story - and one which in my opinion should be featuring in Award shortlists.
EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT by Dave Hutchinson
When a book has been well-received by readers and critics, there is always the temptation to produce a sequel, even if
the original intention was a stand-alone novel. In the best cases, there are enough intriguing ambiguities to form a
second volume. It doesn’t mean that the same characters will be present (though the readership may want them) but
the story will be set against the same background.
At the end of EUROPE IN AUTUMN, Hutchinson’s first novel, there were enough opportunities to create something new – some authors feel a need to produce a similar plot but this is not what Dave Hutchinson does. In EUROPE IN AUTUMN, the focus was on Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Poland. Across the continent, society has been breaking up into smaller and smaller countries and polities making travel inconvenient. Rudi is also a Coureur, moving information and/or people from one state to another. Rudi is not the focus of EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT.
This begins with an innocent seeming scenario on a university campus. One of the lecturers, who introduces himself as Rupert of Hentsau, is fishing when a woman paddles past in a kayak. Slowly, it becomes apparent that this is not an ordinary campus, but a huge, city-sized place and there is no way out. Some think that there must be an escape route but there is no evidence that anyone has ever escaped. Then the woman, Araminta, reveals that she knows a way out, because she has come from the outside. A number of things happen simultaneously. The Science Department plans a coup and Rupert heads out along the river to prove or not, Araminta’s claims.
This is a novel seem from two perspectives. Rupert’s is first person, but there is also a third person narrative from the point of view of Jim Baines, a detective who is sent to Nottingham to investigate a stabbing. Jim is attached to a special unit that has been looking for clues to the existence of the Community of which the Campus is a part. As Rupert recovers, he finds that Jim believes his story and that he can never go back.
Like most good novels, there are a number of tangled threads. The idea of the independent small states is well established but one in particular is of interest to the authorities. The Republic of Dresden-Neustadt built a very high wall around its polity and nothing goes in and out. Many are curious as to who lives there and what is going on. The Community decides it wants to negotiate joining the rest of Europe. It is a strange place that should not exist and seems to sit within the folds of space, concurrent with the land around it. There are only a few places where people can cross over and their co-ordinates are closely guarded. To add to the mixture is The Line which is a country in itself and runs across Europe.
This is a complex novel, building on the enigmas left at the end of EUROPE IN AUTUMN and providing more to be explored in the next novel. A thoroughly good read that deserved its shortlisting for the Arthur C. Clarke award.
EUROPE IN AUTUMN by Dave Hutchinson
Predicting future political trends is difficult. As Charles Stross has now found not everything turns out the way you want
it. Several of his novels will now have to be regarded as alternative histories. Not that Stross will be particularly worried
as there is a fine tradition in alternative histories. Extrapolating current trends into a relatively near future is an
interesting exercise. Currently, there seems to be a desire for ethnic groupings to desire autonomy. Whether or not this
is economically viable depends on the strengths of the group. Dave Hutchinson has taken this trend to extremes and
postulated a Europe divided into ever decreasing blocs which may or may not have free movement across borders.
EUROPE IN AUTUMN is set largely in Central Europe and centres around Rudi, an Estonian cook working in a Polish restaurant. It’s not an easy life but he’s reasonably content. Max, the owner, pays protection to keep in business. It’s an accepted part of the system in a Europe where the authorities think they have better things to do. Rudi is able to move more freely across borders than most Polish nationals and with less suspicion so he is asked to go to the small state of Hindenberg and bring back a message from Max’s cousin. This is the start of a new career. While still working at the restaurant he is trained as a Coureur. Using a carefully constructed set of aliases, Coureurs smuggle documents and people across the borders faster than going through diplomatic channels.
This is a novel that starts off well. The seediness of the characters, settings and plot structure is reminiscent of a realistic spy thriller – far more gritty than the Bond novels. These are people that most would not notice as any good spy ought to be. Rudi’s frustration at the tedium of his initial training is shot through with reality. The first third is well written, pacey and holds the attention, everything that a good thriller should be. These qualities don’t diminish but as Rudi gets deeper into the role that has been elected into, the plot becomes more episodic. The result is something that could easily be turned into a many-part TV series. It has the same quality. There is a cast of regular characters who have developing roles and face changing dilemmas. There is the mysterious Zone. This is an area on either side of a railway line that crosses Europe and which steadily becomes the focus of Rudi’s activities. This is the story arc which creeps into the episodes, unnoticed at first but heading towards the big denouement in the final episode. For this reason, it is a shame that Hutchinson has confined himself to a single novel. Some of the episodes feel as if they want to be expanded and made more complex. A trilogy would have been nice. A longer series would have made the readership sit up and take notice.
EUROPE IN WINTER by Dave Hutchinson
Dave Hutchinson is a writer capable of threading together a number of genres to make an unusual whole. This may be
the third book in the series but is sufficiently discrete for it to have won this year’s the BFSA Award for best novel.
Anyone who has read the first in the series will be familiar with Rudi, the Estonian chef who works in Poland and was recruited as a Coureur des Bois in EUROPE IN AUTUMN. He plays very little part in the second volume but is back here as a central character. EUROPE IN WINTER, however, starts with a bang – a very big bang. Running east to west across this Europe is a railway line. The Line is a country in its own right and to travel by train, a passenger has to become a citizen. For this reason, rather than stations there are consulates. (There is only one in Poland.) Someone has managed to blow up a train in the tunnel through the mountains of Eastern Europe, to the inconvenience of almost everyone.
This is a Europe that exhibits a number of other strangenesses. The Community is a whole country enfolded within the English landscape. It exists in parallel with the rest of Europe with only a selected number of places to pass from one to the other. It exists in the same way fairyland exists in some fantasy novels. The community, though, is in diplomatic discussions with the aim of joining the rest of Europe – except that knowing who to negotiate with is difficult as the continent has disintegrated in to many states and polities each with their own idea of government.
One of the states that became ‘of interest’ in EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT was the Republic of Dresden-Neustadt. No one knew what went on within the very high walls that surrounded it, and everyone was curious. The suggestion here is that it contains vast computing power that runs through various scenarios to predict the most likely. The question is whether that is the source of the dream Rudi has when he reprises a visit to the restaurant by a gang of Hungarians, followed by an impossible visit from his older self.
The spy-thriller element is strong throughout. Although Rudi doesn’t do much work for the Coureurs any more, he is drawn to a clandestine meeting with a man offering him information. He is not the only person who was offered the information so when he sees his contact being arrested, he steers the other person, Gwen, away from the area. When Rudi’s father dies, he is given a box of some of his father’s effects. The contents draw him into a mystery that started far in the past, and since someone seems to want him dead, Rudi’s stubborn nature makes him wish to unravel it.
This is a novel with a complex plot line which skilfully connects places and characters from both earlier novels and never heads in the direction expected. It is a book deserving of being read more than once in order to pick up all the nuances hidden within.
SHELTER by Dave Hutchinson
The phenomenon of authors writing further stories about familiar characters or in familiar settings has a long pedigree.
Once fan-fiction is excluded, there is quite a body of work revolving around out of copyright authors such as Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, some of which are commissioned by the publisher (such as Freda Warrington’s sequel
to DRACULA – DRACULA THE UNDEAD). Some franchises are linked to popular TV series like Star Trek, Doctor Who
or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Publishers of anthologies quite like a theme for a volume but within it the authors have
the scope to explore the idea. What is much rarer is the publisher coming up with the theme for a series of novels and
persuading different authors to produce subsequent books.
Allowed free reign, authors have a tendency to follow their own paths and any two can produce totally different works from the same starting point. So when Solaris came up with the idea of a series of books under the banner of The Aftermath, they would have had to devise a Bible within which the novels have to be restrained. Dave Hutchinson has kicked off this series with SHELTER, a book that all subsequent authors will have to keep in their sights. It sets out the landscape within which the stories have to take place. They may choose other places and other characters but there will need to be an internal congruency for the series to work. The basic premise is that almost a century before the current action, a fragmenting comet struck the Earth causing a series of natural disasters which have wiped out most of what most would have regarded as civilisation. Gradually, communities are beginning to piece themselves back together, but it is a hard job. Dave Hutchinson is no stranger to the fragmentation of society as recounted in his acclaimed Fractured Europe series which began with the perceptive EUROPE IN AUTUMN. In this Britain, the centre of potential is Portsmouth, where the naval base had enough resources to begin to piece together civilisation. The problem is that everything else being fragmented has allowed different groups to arise that could cause problems. Adam Hardy is basically a spy. His job is to estimate the danger a community poses to the progress Portsmouth has made and whether they are a likely trading partner. We first meet him venturing into Thanet. One of the Portsmouth operatives disappeared there. He has to find out what happened to her and whether the tyrannical dictatorship there is a threat. We are also introduced to the farming communities in Oxfordshire. The main farms are well fortified as during the early days after the disaster armed gangs fought for survival. The trouble here starts when Max, the patriarch of one farm is attacked and severely injured on his way home from visiting another stronghold. As he is in no state to report the truth, it is assumed that he killed the three youths found nearby. One is the son for a rival farming community. From here the armed conflict escalates and Adam finds himself in the midst of it while trying to make his way to his next rendezvous. Hutchinson masterfully portrays the hardships of the communities as they struggle to survive and the results of making assumptions. This is an excellent novel to begin a series with. Hutchinson has set the bar high and provided a template for those who come after.